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When Life Doesn't Look the Way You Want It To
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 11/14/2010
Story: Niel and the Test of Worthiness for Kingship
Niel soon found his way to the dense screen of brush and pushing through it saw the lovely spring, the inviting pitcher of water, and the ghastly hag. Looking at her levelly he said “Greetings lady. I am prince Niel. Give me water. “ “Oh, handsome young prince, I’ll give you water if you’ll . . . give me a kiss!” she replied. Niel strode up to the creature and, taking her in a passionate embrace he said “I shall not only kiss you, but lie with you!” At that, a wondrous transformation took place and Niel found himself in the arms of a goddess of unearthly beauty who said “Hail Niel, who shall be king hereafter, for you have met the test and proved worthy.”
When Life Doesn’t Look the Way You Want It To
It is a meritocracy in this storied kingdom, which ought to get your attention straightaway. We hear so many tales in storyland about princes who were born to take the lead, so many tales about good kings or bad kings but regardless of how good or bad they are there is never any question that they deserve to lead solely by virtue of their birth. So the incomplete meritocracy of this story, where the prince is chosen from among the young men of the nobility, is an unusual twist on the usual kingdom tale, and I think that makes this kind of a nice UUish sort of story in some ways.
I would be a remiss UU, however, if I didn’t mention a couple of unjust parts of this tale, because they go by so quickly in the story that they might give you the impression that they are Normal, the Way Things Are.
I said before that the meritocracy was incomplete – this is because it is said in the story that only upper class men are candidates for the kingship of this land, and of course we UUs know and practice the conviction that eligibility for leadership does not hinge on gender or social status.
Even more of a concern, to this interpreter, is the casual way in which the specter of kissing a hideously ugly female creature is used as the impediment to survival, wisdom and success. There are many, many tales in which the success or failure of men hangs on the beauty or ugliness of women, so I don’t want to be too condemning of this one. Having grown up in the real world, however, where a good chunk of how women are valued still depends on what they look like, I don’t want to let that part of the story pass by without comment. I have to say that I wish the grand obstacle of this story was not being forced to kiss a hideous female. However, that is the nature of this tale, and there is much to learn within it even if parts of it rub me the wrong way.
By the way, this taking-a-story-with-a-pinch-of-salt system is a skill I learned while reading Scripture, some of the grandest narratives of all, and I recommend the “pinch of salt” technique to anyone considering diving into these sorts of adventures, so as not to miss deep truths even when the packaging offends.
So we move on.
This story asks what makes a person worthy of kingship, and that is a question that we ask ourselves today. Only these days, we use different words. We don’t say “How will I get to be King” so often as “How will I know if I’ve been successful?” “What will make me truly happy?” or even, “What is the meaning of life?” And it is important to me that in the story there are two levels of evaluating these questions.
There is the human way of evaluating worthiness, the worldly way, including perhaps the aforementioned qualities of maleness, attractiveness, and a certain class status. We might add in other worldly badges of success, like wealth, and zeal, a certain intrepid spirit.
But this story, it is said, is also about a test for kingship at a second, higher level, one created by the goddess of kingship herself. So the characters in the story are no longer operating at the level of what the world thinks makes for success or happiness. In this tale we are to hear what the very Goddess of Success herself thinks makes for success, if you know what I mean. This story is to reveal to us what REALLY leads to kingship, according to a deeper truth than human beings can generally muster on their own. That’s pretty exciting, I think. It seems like we are going to learn something big here.
So here is the narrative. The men eligible for kingship have a fun day out in the woods, hunting and hanging out, working hard at something worthwhile and enjoyable. While preparing to rest they realize that they are lacking water, something important to their peace of mind, their festive evening plans, and their survival.
Isn’t that the way the big questions come to us as well, at least those of us living in this relatively privileged culture? We’re riding along at a breakneck pace, accompanied by our peer group, doing the things we need to do and hopefully also the things we enjoy doing. Suddenly it occurs to us that something is off in our lives or our world, maybe even seriously wrong. Maybe it is not something that needs attention right away, but it is something that will necessitate a change in direction and focus, or else it will become an emergency.
In this tale it is water that is needed. In real life it might be more depth and meaning to one’s life that is needed. You might need mended or deepened relationships with the people around you. You could need more authenticity in your world, more truth about who you are and what you need, more honesty about the world as it is or as it could be.
You might need something to survive, more money or resources or assistance with a problem outside of your ability to solve. I’m sure many of us can think of something in our lives that we probably need to attend to soon, in order to avoid it becoming an emergency. We all face those times; we face them several times over even the most blessed of lives.
When there is something important in our lives that we need to attend to, something that involves the prospect of things we don’t like like change, and uncertainty, doubt and ambiguity, we would do well to learn from the young men in the story.
It is a good first step to do what these young men do – boldly step out in search of what is needed, certain that it is there somewhere. The water, as it turned out, was right there – and the thing you need is out there somewhere, too, and it will be worthwhile to look for it.
Being brave enough to take the initiative in seeking the solution to your problem is no small thing, and is an important and critical first step. But you’ll remember from the story that it is not enough to simply seek what is needed, is it?
The first young man in search of water comes across that which he finds repulsive – a female creature that seems a blend of Picasso’s cubist phase come to life and the Orcs of the Lord of the Ring trilogy. This creature is standing in between him and that which he needs in order to meet his goal, in order to survive and flourish. Her mere presence would have been bad enough, but she tells him what he surely does not want to hear – if he wants to get to what he needs, he has to thoroughly embrace her.
Thoroughly embrace that which he finds repugnant in order to get to what he needs to live his best life. Yikes, I think we can all say. And I think we can all be sympathetic. I know there have been many times in my life where what I wanted was right…there….behind some huge impediment that seemed at least daunting if not impossible, something ugly that I didn’t want to face or interact with. This man faces the same problem, come to life. We’ve all been there.
And perhaps like many of us, despite this fellow’s early bravery in setting out to find what he needed, when he becomes faced with this thoroughly unpleasant impediment, he simply gives up. He goes back to his people and he does not even tell them what has happened. Embracing the obstacle is such a deal breaker that he doesn’t even acknowledge that the thing that they all need is right there waiting to be found. He doesn’t even entertain the thought that what he has been asked to do is even possible. It is just a straight out No, and a return to what there was before.
It is to this part in the journey towards happiness, to this place on the path towards true Goddess-type success or even kingship, that I want to speak today. As I mentioned, it is brave to even start on this journey towards getting what you really need. But many people do it. What many people don’t do is to face the obstacle that is Thoroughly Impossible to Even Imagine, and to embrace it.
I’ve already told you that I’m uncomfortable with the obstacle in the story, and she is just a metaphor anyway, so I invite you to think of what Giant Impediment is standing in your path to happiness and to goddess-sanctioned success, such that you cannot even entertain the idea of embracing it.
Do you, perhaps, need a new job?
Do you, perhaps, need to change a pattern in the way you deal with other people?
Do you, perhaps, need to forgive your mother, for example, or your ex-husband, or someone else who’s difficult?
Do you need to commit to something big, but can’t figure out a way to prioritize it in your life?
What is the Horrible Specter that looms between you and your best life, your greatest potential, your deepest happiness? And what would happen if you just…melted into it?
The story today gives us an idea of what could happen. Niel is the last of the men to find the stream and the pitcher and the Horrible Obstacle. He is the last of the men to be invited into an embrace with that which seems too terrible to imagine. And Niel is the only one who accepts. With gusto, I might add. He accepts with zest.
I read this story many times over the past few months, and there was one concept that kept arising for me out of the tale. No, I thought, that can’t be what I talk about during this worship service. There are things that UUs won’t take to very readily. It will be too hard to explain or justify. Few will get it. It will turn people away, and they won’t listen. Better to try for something else.
But the concept wouldn’t let me go, so I bring it here today because to me this is what this story is ultimately about. The lesson of this story, to me, is about the importance of, and the glory of, surrender. This story is about surrender as a path to kingship.
UUs don’t like to surrender, not to God’s will or to fate’s whims or to life’s circumstances. UUs tend to think that surrendering means allowing for injustice, or lying back and taking it, or wasting away and letting someone else’s voice count for more than ours. We believe everyone is important and should be heard and treated fairly – that’s in our denomination’s Principles and in our congregation’s covenant.
But surrender has another side to it, one that’s hard to articulate and even hard to stomach unless you have experienced it. And usually, for people like us, we don’t even come close to the act of surrender unless we are forced to by the way our lives are going.
Has anyone’s life ever gotten so out of control that you gave up trying to control it? That’s the sort of surrender I’m talking about. The first couple of times someone like us really surrenders to the forces that overwhelm us, we generally do it because we really don’t have another option. It takes a while to learn to embrace that which we don’t want, embrace those things that we don’t want to see or have to think about or have anything to do with.
Niel has learned to embrace his obstacles, however, with enthusiasm. And good thing, too. Wanting only the water, Niel dives into the opportunity to get it. But his reward is far more than the quenching of his thirst. The Horrible Obstacle before him is transformed into something Stunningly Wonderful, and the thing that is Stunningly Wonderful gives him not only the water that he thought was what would solve all his problems, but also literally gives him the keys to the kingdom. It is the act of going along with the Obstacle that changes everything, that offers the goddess-level of success that so many try but fail to attain.
So I ask you: What would happen to you if you embraced your Horrible Obstacle? There is something blocking your path to what you think you want or need – what will you do with it?
Will you turn back, pretending that all ways are closed to you? Will you tell others that there’s no way for you to get to where you want to go?
Or will you surrender to your Obstacle, jump in with both feet to what life is offering, and see what glory might erupt from the combination of your bravery and your humility?
Think about it. Let the story sit with you. Don’t be one of the other brothers. Give the Horrible Obstacle a chance. You may end up being our next King.
This may come as no surprise, but for those in search of greater depth and meaning to life, I always recommend more church - maybe that’s just me, though. More relationships of value are always available, if you care enough to seek them out. You can mend the broken relationships in your lives, too, if you desire to do that work and take the first steps in that direction. If you need help because something has gotten overwhelming for you, there are resources in this area for you if you start to look and ask for them.