The Center isn’t Holding.
Joan Didion is a beloved American writer. She first entered the American mind through the essays she wrote in 1960s. At the time, Didion was “on the ground,” doing investigative journalism with hippies in the Haight-Ashbury District. In “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” perhaps her most famous essay, Didion wrote about how hippies were disrupting the status quo and taking acid (“turning on,” as they said) in order to reach a higher state of consciousness and build a better social world. It rather shocked Didion, as it did most Americans, to see young adults taking the drug and going “trips.” Didion was undone with shock, however, when she saw [slow] a young child, age 5 (!), doing acid in a small San Francisco apartment. Referencing the poet W. B. Yeats, Didion wrote that the center of her social world—her social gravity, as it were, which had kept things in their safe assumed place—had lost its grip. The world, it seemed, had been undone.
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The Falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart [slow]; the center [slow] cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned [pause];
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Collapse of Trust
And so, too, does it seem for us. Our center is loose. Things can seem out of place.
Consider public trust. Only 3% (!) of Americans think our government will almost always do the right thing; 14% (!) think it will do the right thing most of the time. And just a third trust the government to do what is right at all.
Our trust for the media doesn’t fare much better. A recent report indicated that only 42% of Americans trust the media to report accurate and reliable information about the world. Increasingly, we hear talk that the media, which without question is an indispensable pillar of a healthy democracy, is an enemy of the people and “fake news.”
It’s not just that we have less trust in government and in the media. We, as a country, are also much less trusting of each other. In 1972, the majority of Americans thought that most people can be trusted. Today, however, studies report that only 1 in 3 Americans think other people are trustworthy. And that number shrinks with age. Just 19% of Millennial’s—that is, people born between 1981 and 1996—think most people can be trusted.
Once upon a time, religious institutions offered a sacred center in a broken world. A place of sacred shelter amid in the ravaging storms of life. Religion once held life together when nothing else could, and like nothing else could. No more. Today, religious institutions are often experienced as trigger-factories; less safe, believable, and trustworthy than perhaps any time in United States history.
There are a number of reasons why trust is at a historical low. For one, Americans have always been a rather suspicious people. Some of our ancestors fled Europe, after all, precisely because they couldn’t trust their governments to respect their freedom. Then, with little hint of the cruel and foolish irony, they tried to create their desired freedom anew by enslaving others. Another reason: in the 1960s, when public trust began to plummet statistically, we became painfully mindful of how systematically corrupt our government is. It was then that the media discovered a revolutionary power; it could pull secret curtains back on powerful leaders and expose them as murderous frauds and fools. Another reason is rising inequality. Today we are painfully aware that a tiny fraction of the population owns the means of production—and vacations on beautiful islands they themselves own—while a near majority cannot afford a $400.00 emergency. While the rich get richer, the poor in our state need to work two full time jobs just to afford a modest apartment. Whether you are a Democratic or a Republican, an independent or an anarchist, it is hard not to see that the economy isn’t unfairly rigged against average Jane and Joe. Pastors and priests, finally—the shepherds we once entrusted our souls to—routinely exploit the vulnerable, wound innocent souls, and turn out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing. I am convinced that the 2002 exposé of the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church by the Boston Globe will be remembered as one of the most critical and damning periods in modern religious history.
The Importance of Trust
Trust, though, is vitally important. It matters whether or not we trust people and institutions. For one, trust helps us solve problems. And, indeed, we have a lot of problems: climate change, rising inequality, addiction, mental illness, domestic and foreign violence. If we do not trust each other, it is hard to solve our pressing problems. That’s pretty basic. Trust also matters because it influences our mental and emotional health. We are, by nature, radically dependent creatures. If we do not see the world outside of us as safe and trustworthy, we will feel unsafe and trust that life itself is untrustworthy. If the world outside is perceive as a threat, we cannot help but walk in the world heavy with mental and emotional armor. Trust is also vital to our spiritual lives. Distrust is a corrosive poison to the spiritual life. It is a spiritual cancer. It is a cancer precisely because it eats away at our capacity to experience and love God in all things, which is the fundamental and sacred gravity of our spiritual lives. By nature, our spirits gravitate toward each other. By nurture, we turn away from each other. God created the world good; She wanted it to radiate warmth and care. When we experience the world as unsafe and untrustworthy, it is almost impossible to experience and love God in it.
And, in a social climate of wounded trust, it is hard to be and experience friendship. The spiritual cancer of distrust has emptied the world of a basic friendliness.
On being a friend in a climate of distrust.
I think a lot about how to be a good Friend. It’s a question that animates my life and which I want to make more central in the sermons I preach from here out. I think it is an important question because it is never obvious. What it means to be a good friend in one time and place will differ somewhat from what it means to be a good friend in another time and place.
In the first part of this sermon, I suggested that our age is marked by a profound lack of trust. With and without knowing it, our spiritual lives are suspectable to the deadly spiritual cancer of distrust. Some suffer from it more than others. To be sure, a few of us are mysteriously immune from the disease—living, somehow, as the psychologist William James wrote, like there is always a bottle or two of champagne swimming pleasantly in their bloodstream. Certainly, though, being a good friend requires reckoning with this spiritual cancer that grievously wounds many people, makes it hard to love and experience God in all things, and empties the world of a basic friendliness.
On the one hand, the spiritual cancer of distrust is a deep tragedy. Anything that wounds our capacity to love and become fully alive is a great tragedy because it distorts the true nature and direction of life. We are made to love the world and need trust in order to do that. It is an oxygen of the spiritual life. On the other hand, however, the poison of distrust in our social climate presents us with a sacred and joyous opportunity. It’s not all bad news. Underneath the cries and screams and pains of distrust is a voice of Love. It is a wounded voice that calls us to care for those who are wounded by distrust. Responding to the voice of Love is an opportunity to fulfill our Christian obligation to be good friends and create a joyous present. Nothing in Jesus’s life was more beautiful, divine, and joyous than his creative care for the wounded, than his care for his friends, then when hurting people were reborn and lived abundantly.
The Heart of the Matter
Here, then, is the heart of my message. Being a good Friend in our time and place requires understanding and caring for the holy wounds of distrust that people suffer from, and which makes it appear like the safe and sacred center of reality has lost its grip. That the world is an enemy to guard against rather than a friend to love. I am convinced that one way we can care for people suffering from the spiritual cancer of distrust is to cultivate sacred friendships that might help people understand that, at the heart of all things, is the presence of a loving God who is trustworthy and safe.
Friendship. Isn’t this, after all, the heart of our faith as Quakers and, more broadly, as Christians? Is this not precisely what Jesus said in the Gospel of John, chapter 15 and verse 15, when he told his disciples that they were his friends, not his servants, and when he invited them to live that holy friendship in their everyday lives by loving the world?
Friendship. It is a beautiful calling. And a tough one. It requires regular spiritual practice.
I want to conclude this sermon by highlighting three spiritual practices we at Spokane Friends are already doing to be good friends and help heal the wounds of distrust people in our time and place are suffering from. Sometimes, I think, it’s important to sit back and bask in what we’re all doing pretty dang well rather than fret over what we need to do differently.
Rooted in Love through Silence
We cannot be good friends in the world if do not create space to experience God’s love within ourselves. Jesus told his disciples, in John 15, again, that holy friendship requires a deep and continued abiding in divine love. I see us making space to abide in God’s love through the practice of silence. In our silent togetherness, in which we create space for God to move us individually and as a group, we try to ground and surround ourselves in the real and life-giving power of divine love. That benevolent power is what frees us and inspires us to care for and remedy the wounds of distrust, and therefore help people understand that a safe and eternal power we name God—but which goes by many names—is forever and reliably present amongst us.
Being a good friend also requires being humble. That is another thing we do well in our church. Something I really liked about Gary’s message last week is how he began. “I could be wrong,” he said, “but this is what I believe God has called me to share.” Then he gave us his somewhat controversial message. Gary told us that any preacher that tells us otherwise—that she or he has the certain answer for once and all time—is sadly mistaken. That, of course, is not just true for people who stand at a pulpit. Good friendship, which aims to restore a real and loving and trustworthy presence in the world, calls out for an understanding that we all have only a small view of the world and that we all need help seeing and responding effectively to the complex mystery of our lives.
At our last elders meeting, Pam said something that really powerful and moving. It reminded me why I love this church and my covenant with you as part-time pastor. When I asked her how I might help nurture the elders’ vision for our church, she said that that she just really wants to see us continue to welcome people in our community so that they know there is a place where they are accepted. That’s it. It’s radical acceptance in a bitterly divided and rejecting world. It’s a dream worth living and fighting and dying for. We are all different people, formed and fashioned uniquely from the pains and pleasures of our lives. We are farmers and bankers. Professors and bakers. We are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. We businesspeople and left-wing activists. How beautiful. And how very natural that we’ll quibble with one another from time to time. Sometimes quite passionately. At the end of the day, though, I see us push passed small quibbles to the deepest truth about us: we are all friends, united in the power of God’s love for us. No matter who you are—regardless of your politics, your economic class, your sexual orientation, whatever—you are a friend of God who we care deeply about, and you are welcome here. Our new welcome statement, written by Krista, puts this very well: [read]:
Conclusion: A Query on the Already Good
These spiritual practices—silent rootedness in the power of God’s love, humility before one another, and radical acceptance—help us be good friends and care for the wounds of distrust that people suffer from. They help us minister to a present moment that is aching for a real, personal, and experiential presence that is safe, reliable, and loving. What a joy it is to befriend the world with God and to help people understand that there is a real center that will always be held strong with loving and infinitely tender hands.
Today’s query asks us to consider how God might be inviting us to further reflect on the ways we’ve been good friends lately. Please, friends, sit with this query—and share anything that God compels you to share with the group.
THis message was delivered to Spokane Friends Church by Paul Blankenship on November 17, 2019.
 Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008), 128.
 W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: Woodsworth Editions, 2008),
 Pew Research Center, “Public Trust in Government: 1958-2019.” https://www.people-press.org/2019/04/11/public-trust-in-government-1958-2019/
 Uri Friedman, “Trust is Collapsing in America,” The Atlantic (January 21, 2018): https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/01/trust-trump-america-world/550964/
 Josh Morgan, “The Decline of Trust in the United States” (May 20: 2014): https://medium.com/@monarchjogs/the-decline-of-trust-in-the-united-states-fb8ab719b82a
 Pew Research Center, “millennials in Adulthood”: https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/03/07/millennials-in-adulthood/