Luck, Happiness, and Faith

a sermon by Rev. Jill Cowie


In a public discourse dominated by the culture of control, Jackson Lears suggests in his book, Something for Nothing: Luck in America, a culture less intent on the individual’s responsibility to master destiny might be more capacious, more generous, and more gracious. He says, “Its about chance confirming everything you knew but could make no place for in your life.” Join John Chapman and I as we explore in prose and music how the confluence of luck, happiness, and faith can create a distinctly different culture than what our Puritan ancestors anticipated.

The Sermon

When I told Ben, my husband that I was preaching on luck, he said, phew, “good luck.” Something we all say without much thought to friends as they embark on a journey or attempt something new in the hopes that we can positively influence the unpredictable outcome. I hope his wish for luck comes true this morning. But when luck fails, when things seemingly don’t go our way time and time again, we can begin to feel pleasure in someone else’s pain. Like Homer Simpson in our reading, we too are relieved to know the universe is impartial in its misery. I admit feeling happy once after pumping out my basement when I learned my neighbor’s slightly higher basement also flooded. Have you known such moments? Maybe during the campaign when candidate Trump made it clear what he thought of women, something so sure to sink him? Did you like me relish this thought? And did you like me experience a deep disappointment that his anticipated misfortune didn’t materialize, and then pain again when he was actually elected?

What exactly is luck then? Jackson Lears, a professor at the University of Chicago says in his book about luck that the narrative of luck in this country shifts between two conflicting cultures. The first culture is one of chance with roots in cultures of the indigenous people, the African people once enslaved here, and the culture of early European Catholic immigrants. Luck in this narrative is at ease with randomness and irrationality, more doubtful that self-diligence is the only path to success. Cultures of chance understand luck as the spiritual power that pervades, sustains, and rules the cosmos. A kind of potentiality suffused with hope and foreboding that can be conjured for good or for evil. They engaged in rituals of serious play using sacred objects to read the will of the cosmos.

The second culture is one of control, one grounded in a pre-determined divine plan of our early protestant ancestors, and the more recent modern managerial tradition. In this narrative, one Homer Simpson knows, chance is a demon to be denied, or a difficulty to manage. Both cultures of chance and control are ideals that overlap and intermingle, rarely existing in pure form. Does one feel more familiar to you, more like home?

What I find hopeful about the culture of chance is that it treats the unexpected as asource of knowledge and a portal of possibility. Something that seems central to ourcommitment to justice for the most powerful justice movements these days are grounded in the ideals of chance. This occurred to me this weekend as I watched so many women mark the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration by again taking to the streets. Looking back, the year has been transformative. It was Clinton’s unexpected loss that drove women, first to the streets, and then to the campaign trail in numbers previously unimaginable. To historic wins in the 2017 elections, and to run now in unprecedented number in national elections; to give their powerful #Metoo testimonies, and to ignite Hollywood’s new Time’s Up initiative. And I wonder would this be true if Clinton had won?

Jackson Lears says “Cultures of chance that take luck seriously thrive in uncertainty and tap into a sense of plenitude that underlies and over flows all conventional forms.” The women’s movement is ripe with this dynamic. At first justly criticized for its lack of inclusion, it evolved with openness so that leadership by race, class, ethnicity, and geography could emerge to create a network of mutuality that invites most women, with the unfortunate exception of transgender women, to say, “yes, me too.” How many of you have told your “me too” story, if only to yourself? I know I have, and I am grateful for those who have done so publicly.

Author Madeleine L’ Angle, speaking to a group of Wellesley graduates said, “that women leading this type of cultural change is not surprising, for as women we have not been forced to repress our intuitive, imaginative, numinous side. We have been allowed to go down into the darkness of unexpectedness whereas men have been forced by society to limit themselves to the reasonable, the rational the provable.” What do you say men/women? True for you?

I find hope as well in the culture of chance that pervades the climate change movement and how the much the indigenous people have made a difference; tribes with long histories of listening to the dreams of their ancestors with enduring faith in the creativity of their trickster gods, coyote, and spider to restore creation. Last week Bill McKibben talked about how much the Climate Change movement has been transformed by their leadership. Thanks to them, Bill says, the tide is turning. On January 10th the City of New York divested its pension plans from fossil fuel funds, 200 Billion dollars, and filed a law suit against the fossil fuel industry. The City of Los Angeles has joined the suit, and San Francisco has voted to divest. Norway, a country whose economy is based on oil divested its sovereign wealth fund, the biggest pool of money in the world. As of today, 6 trillion dollars have been divested. Here in Massachusetts, the University of Massachusetts was the first to divest, Brandeis is working hard on it, and we have our “Stand Up to Charlie” movement that asks the governor to pass an executive order that bans any new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state. And what about us, this church have we divested our endowment fund?

“This is a fight” says Bill McKibben, a fight he says that is“ not based on rationality, but on the power of caring for each other. A fight that depends on our ability to say we have each others back, all of us against the power of the fossil fuel industry.” A fight we have to win quickly if it matters. On January 31st, Fossil Free Fast is launching a campaign that calls for cities and towns to ban all new coal and oil and gas projects, to divest from fossil fuels, and to transition toward 100 percent renewable energy for all. Do we have each other’s back on this, will you, will we join this campaign? What will we do to cut our emissions by 80 percent in a decade? We may not make it, but don’t you think it’s worth the chance?

My time at Standing Rock has taught me that the most thoughtful meditation on chance is the willingness to live with unresolved conflicts, to embrace accidents while at the same time affirming the possibility of transcending them, all the while sustaining a vision of cosmic coherence. The acceptance of this paradox offers us hope in the face of the inevitable, and a state of grace where the cultures of chance and control can somehow come together.

For guidance we can turn to our own Unitarian ancestor William James who wasinspired by the possibilities of chance. He was fascinated by the realm of truth discovered in pure experience, telling Gertrude Stein, “Never reject anything.” As a psychologist, he placed the subliminal self, the sub-conscious on a continuum with the conscious self and for him chance was a gift he was willing to fight for. All too aware that that the 19th center culture of managerial control was beginning to marginalize the culture of chance in this country he said, “this feels like a real fight,as if there is something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulness need to redeem if something eternal is to be gained by our success.”

What are your meditations on chance? Do you engage in the culture of chance to bring your whole selves- mind, body and spirit- to the profound uncertainty and challenges of our times? Do you have sacred objects that help you read the will of the cosmos? Rocks, fabric, symbols-anyone want to share? I dabble with Tarot cards and I drew two as I wrote this sermon, “death and defeat” both say its time to let go of the fear of losing control. But none of these rituals mean anything if they don’t help us engage in a larger effort to manifest good and bring forth efforts like the women’s movement, and the Climate change movements that work towards a moral economy and fuse people together.

Two of my favorite writers, Mike Lewis and Barbara Kingsolver offer us tangible guidance in the speeches they gave to recent college graduates. Mike Lewis says be aware of how luck shapes us. He cites a study done a few years ago by a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department that used teams of thre students segregated by gender. They put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as a leader. Then they gave them a complicated moral problem to solve, like what should be done about academic cheating. Exactly thirty minutes into the problem solving, the researchers entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies, three people, that left the fourth cookie just sitting there. This should have been awkward but it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the cookie and ate it, with gusto. This leader had been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier, but it still left him with the sense the cookie should be his. Mike Lewis closed his speech with this “all of you have been faced with the extra cookie, all of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know you may, but you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.”

Barbara Kingsolver tells a group of Duke graduates, “You must make rules previously unthinkable, imposing limits on what we can use and possess.” You must say to those who cannot imagine changing the rules, we already did, we have made the world anew.” Like the graduates we too can let go of our hunger for the extra cookie and make the world anew. We will need courage to live with unresolved conflicts and to embrace accidents. We will need the faith of this community to tap into the power that transcends them and sustains a vision of a coherent cosmos. We may just find happiness along the way, a word whose root “happ” means good luck. I wish us all good luck as we do so.

Jackson Lears, “Something For Nothing” 2004, Way More than Luck: Commencement Speeches on Living with Bravery, Empathy, and Other Existential Skills