This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington following the shooting death of 9 members of the AME Bethel Church in Charleston.
For some of us today, we have Fathers’ Day on the forefront of our minds. For others, we may be pausing to celebrate Juneeteenth, the day the last slaves in Texas got word that they were free. For others, our minds are celebrating the beginning of Summer while recognizing that the shortening of days and lengthening of nights have begun. This Sunday, like we just celebrated, is often the Sunday where many UU congregations celebrate our Flower Celebration, or as some call it, Flower Communion. And this past Thursday, 9 good people, were gunned down in their church during Bible study by a White Supremacist – a home-grown domestic terrorist.
We often have the knee-jerk reaction to blame this kind of atrocity on mental illness, or gun ownership, or sometimes even simply bad parenting. But as we continue reflecting this month on our theme of honesty – what would it mean to be a people of honesty in response to acts of domestic terror? On one hand, we have a young white man – who confessed to the killings and made it clear that he wanted to start a race war. His own words. On the other hand, we have politicians and media outlets who dither over what the alleged gunman’s motives actually were. One station even attempting to spin this into a “war on Christians.”
I’m not a psychologist. I want to call acts like this crazy, but conflating atrocities with mental illness washes our hands – at least those of us who are white – it washes our hands of the hard work of seeing what got us to where we are. …Muslims can be terrorists, black youth can be thugs, but white murderers just need counseling. It’s not honest, and it let’s a whole group of people get off from doing the hard work of soul searching. Acts like this, are mental illness, only if you consider institutional racism a mental illness; only if you consider white supremacy a mental illness; only if you also recognize that it’s a social disease that can be transmitted from one generation to the next. That would be more honest.
I personally see this as another tragic moment that calls for smarter laws concerning gun control. We are the only Western Nation with this perpetual crisis, and we are the only Western Nation with lackluster laws concerning gun ownership and responsibility. Our Christian heritage teaches us that violence is not the answer. Jesus would not have told that 41 year old pastor, the Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckey, a father and a congressman, that he would have been safer if everyone in the church were armed. In fact, Jesus taught the opposite. Yet, the NRA spared no time in casting the blame for his own death on the good reverend’s work toward gun control.
But this isn’t really about gun ownership, or gun control. This is about White Supremacy. We see pictures of black youth, in bikinis at a pool party, being tackled by police officers, or a black father being strangled to death over selling loosies, but the young white man that killed 9 people in a church is taken into custody by the police and calmly escorted to trial. They even put him into a bullet proof vest for his protection. If we are being honest with ourselves, we would look at those images and say, this is about more than just gun control.
We can say, where was the family in any of these situations? We can lament the changing nature of family structure, or wonder why any family member would ever give their son a gun, a son who poses in pictures with symbols of hate. We can wonder why someone who talks about doing this kind of act, is never reported in time. We can pretend that the nurturing of hate happens only at home, but that wouldn’t be honest. We live in a nation that continues to pretend the Confederate Flag is a marker of cultural heritage, and ignore the fact that it didn’t start flying on government flag poles in South Carolina until the 1960s in opposition to de-segregation. It’s a symbol of hate, lifted up as noble. While the state flag, and the US Flag were flown at half-mast following the shooting at AME Bethel, the Confederate Flag flew high and bold. And we wonder – “where were the parents?” If we were honest, we would wonder, where was our Nation? Have our hearts been hardened, or have we just become numb?
In the Jewish scripture, there’s the classic lesson of the liberation in the story of Passover. It’s a central message of hope for the Jewish people, and one that gets retold in a new light in Christian communities that have faced generations of oppression. We often focus on the parts of the story that are graphic – like the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. There’s another bit that’s complicated, and so we often gloss over it. Plague after plague has hit the Egyptian people, and time after time, Moses returns to Pharaoh and implores – let my people go! Each time the Pharaoh refuses. In most translations, it reads that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart to show the strength of God’s power and God’s promise to the Jewish people that some day they will be free. Conventionally, it’s understood to mean that nothing short of complete devastation would be enough to really ensure the freedom of the slaves, so that the Egyptians wouldn’t follow after them. And true to form, despite it all, the Pharaoh’s army still goes after the escaped slaves, ending in drowning.
Now, I don’t believe in a God that punishes the innocent, or send plagues or storms. I don’t read scripture literally – especially for the fantastical parts like this. But I also won’t throw it out because it’s a hard part to get through. There’s two parts here that are eternally true. When we get into battles of will over our ego – Pharaoh’s ego or will that his way will win out – never changing – pain and misery is forever the story’s end. And the second half is that, hardened hearts lead to loss and strife. Who is the Pharaoh in our nation’s life today?
In our country today, White Supremacy has taken up the mantle of Pharaoh. It is funded by right-wing hate groups that somehow manage to continue to be considered mainstream or normal. We have a news channel that twists the truth in every which way so that White citizens feel embattled and imagine that they are “losing their country.” We will wage war after war, when any of our citizens are endangered by Muslims, but we will wring our hands saying there’s nothing that can be done, when a White American murders Black Americans. And we allow government buildings to wave the flag of Secession and Segregation, and call it noble. Our hearts have been hardened.
We fund for-profit prisons, but we can’t fund education. We’ll readily punish, but we’ll be misers when it comes to nurture. Our hearts have been hardened. We maintain a consumer-driven, profit-driven culture that expects Americans to work hard, but we won’t offer a living wage, and we have a government that has spent more time trying to repeal affordable health care, than do any meaningful work around generating more jobs. We’ll readily blame the downtrodden, and then not care for the sick when they have no means themselves. Our hearts have been hardened. We will twist our spines in every which way to paint black victims as “no saints themselves”, but call white assailants “quiet” and extend condolences to the families of the assailant for their loss (as the judge in the bond trial just did in the Charleston case. Our hearts have been hardened.
After a tragedy like this, our nation has the tendency to try to seemingly change a few things, for a little while, then sweep it under the carpet and move on – without actually changing anything. If you’re feeling powerless right now – maybe you can join the movement to change parts of what is so wrong in our country. There are petitions to take down the Flag of Slavery from any of our government buildings. It will bring no one back, but maybe our children can be raised in a culture that doesn’t lift up hatred and fly it high with pride. Some may be energized to look at smarter laws around gun control. It will bring back no lives, but maybe we can try to catch up with every other Western Nation when it comes to safer laws around gun use. Maybe you feel called to work toward reforming the cradle-to-prison for-profit system we have that is thriving in our nation; or on the flip-side, you might work toward better funding our educational system so that everyone has a fair chance at success. It may not bring back any lives, but either of these could radically transform the scope of our children’s future.
Living in Long Island, we have a unique opportunity to affect change. We are not in a socially progressive bastion. We live in a region that was historically built to look the way it does. Beginning with the planned communities like Levittown, much of Long Island is segregated – neighborhood by neighborhood. But it also means that when you’re at your PTA meeting, or at the counter of the local diner that has Fox news on 24/7 – you can talk with people that may not have the same social views as you do. Our nation may have hardened its heart since our beginning, but we don’t have to continue to do that. We can call out the lies, with love, relentlessly. Relentlessly, but always with love. There’s no use in being a clanging gong with our neighbor, but there is a desperate need for everyday conversation across social or political or religious lines. The social illness of White Supremacy does not need to continue should we actively choose to engage it every time we encounter it. That’s what being a people of honesty looks like. Hatred has no place. Not in our neighborhoods, not in our state, and not in our nation. As people of faith, we are called by conscience and all that is holy, to never be silent, never be silent, never be silent. We sing nearly ever week about the Spirit of Life. Friends, life calls to life, and it is calling us this hour – and every hour.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
We grieve with the Charleston community, and the good people of the Bethel AME church, which suffered tragedy this week. We remember now their names:
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor
The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.
Rev. Sharonda Singleton
Mother of Justice, open our nation’s eyes to what is so clear before us.
Open our hearts wide – wide enough to wake our country from it’s place of stupor and complacency.
Teach us that black lives matter;
that all life is sacred,
and that each of us are called to craft communities centered in justice and peace.
In the stunned aftermath of Charleston,
stop us from filling the awkward silences,
with the same old trite answers,
that bring us back to this place,
again and again.
Renew our commitment to the work at hand;
empower us to reach out to our neighbor,
and begin a new day,
with the hope of another way,
and the will to challenge the lies of racism,
in our schools,
and in our Zoning Boards,
and in the halls of our government.
Our nation has come so far along the path of equality,
and yet we are see the long history of racism move among us.
Help us to never confuse the progress we’ve made,
with the illusion that the work is now done.
Tending communities of justice and love,
take the work of the hands, and the heart, and the soul,
day after day, lifetime after lifetime.
We pray for the strength to do such sacred work.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/14/15. It honors LGBT Pride month and is a reflection on the lessons of the LGBT civil rights movement since Stonewall.
Happy Pride Weekend all! It feels like an odd thing to say, but we say it every year. Commemorating the 1969 weekend of riots started outside the Stonewall bar on June 27th-29th of that year, we return once more to a defiant consciousness through willful celebration in the face of oppression. We remember the drag kings and drag queens who faced brutal beatings, and much worse, by NY’s finest. We remember a time when Sodomy laws were still on the books everywhere. A weekend when the heels literally came off, the windows of bars and stores shattered, and a chorus line of queerness staved the cops out. Drag Kings and Queens – the very image of the then reviled counter-cultural queerness struggling against the poster-boy for masculine authority. …Happy Pride…
I remember a time in my early twenties, when I was serving on the board for a major suburban gay and lesbian advocacy group in NJ. The Gay Activist Alliance in Morris County or GAAMC, then at 1500 hundred members and the largest suburban group of its kind at the time, was housed in the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship. Dwarfing its host five times over in membership, it was less than a decade away from being a relic of an age of gay culture that was evaporating before the face of the tension between even more local efforts and a vastly more national organization. With electronic social media drawing us out of isolation all the while stripping us from a sense of close community.
In the mid-90s we said Gay and Lesbian; occasionally we said Lesbian and Gay. We usually forgot Bisexual. And we often didn’t know what we were saying when we said Transgender… when we said it at all. I personally recall, many a gay man lamenting all the Transfolk, or People of Drag, who easily gained the spotlights at annual parades. “Why can’t they just let people see us for how normal we are?” was sadly an all too often refrain among the shame-filled gay men desperately trying to fit in. They didn’t know, or they simply forgot, their history. The moment of Pride that set us free, was the sharp rebuttal, loudly given at Stonewall by the people who have still yet to fit in. The people that had nothing left to lose, taking action, and as it happened, managed to mostly benefit those of us Queer folk who managed to walk the line of “normal.” The gays who were straight in appearance, or slightly effeminate or moderately butch. It’ll be ok for us. Ok enough to forget.
That’s what Pride is really about. It’s a celebration of remembering. For some of us, it’s about coming to terms with our feelings of self-hate and shame. The mid-90s remind me of another challenge we faced as a nation and as a people. In 1993, we witnessed firsthand the political might of the “Religious Right” in all its forms and names. They galvanized over the issue of gays in the military. I would say, “allowing gays in the military” as most people say, but that would imply we never allowed gays in the military. In reality, the broader gay community has always been present in the military; and yet the military has thrived. What had not happened by that time was the vocal admission of this fact. The policy that would become “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” helped our country admit the fact that gay and lesbian citizens serve their nation in this respect, even though the epitome of the masculine institution couldn’t validate their identity. In other words, despite the fact that we serve, and we serve well, we continued to pretend open homosexuality was a threat. The logic breaks down. But this great moral failure to integrate openly and affirmingly was never about logic.
When the issue first came up as a major campaign promise, many of us in the LGBT community were happy for the attention, but wondered “why this first?” AIDS was raging unfettered, proper sexual education was invisible in most schools, marriage challenges were popping up in various states across the country, our youngest teens were facing violence and death – sometimes openly (which tragically continues to this day) and our Transgender community had no protections whatsoever in the work force – and still largely doesn’t.
Why aim to be openly admitted to the military when so many from our older generation were vocal advocates in the peace movement of the 60s? Many of us on the ground didn’t understand the political trades and agreements being vetted, behind the scenes; agreements that required the unknown democratic candidate from Arkansas to get his hands committed to anything regarding LGBT rights before the gay fundraising machine would start turning for him. But Clinton’s promise of “It’s done” got that machine moving, and unexpectedly woke the Religious Right up in a huge way.
On the ground we didn’t all understand how massive the cultural changes and wars would be; the Christian evangelical movement really only gaining dominance in our country with folks like Falwell – came about in the 1970s. That’s right – Christian Fundamentalism was comparatively non-existent at the turn of the 20th century. But by the 2000’s most Americans would mistakenly believe Fundamentalism of the Right was the bread and butter of what Christianity meant in the U.S. since its inception. If we looked closely, we’d remember than many of our founding fathers and several of our early presidents were in fact Unitarians. The women in the late 1800’s (like Clara Barton and Dorethea Dix) that transformed the hospital and mental health systems in our country for the better, were largely Unitarian. The Social Gospel movement of the early 1900’s, the hallmark of Christian liberalism applied to societal change, now gets derided by Conservatives as Communism (at best) and a work of the Devil by some talking heads. The cultural changes were so dramatic that 200 years of Christian Liberalism would seem to evaporate overnight.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would come to draw the line in our cultural sandbox. It was as if we were saying, “we know you’re out there, but not in my backyard.” In fact, that was exactly what was meant. This implicit message was what got all the anti-establishment, feminist, peace advocates all crazy to get acknowledged by the greatest, most visible sign of the establishment. When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” finally came to pass, rather than a program which demanded integration, we were shocked. The arguments that won out were lies that connected AIDS to Gays in such a way that suggested they were the same word; ignoring the fact that military screening for AIDS was widely toted as a complete success. The “selflessness” of military dedication was raised up and contrasted with a trumped up image of gays as the incarnation of narcissism. The line of reasoning that won out stated, that military cohesion would be threatened because gay men and women can’t think of anything beyond themselves. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” signified that the country believed that the Queer community was a disease that thought only for itself.
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine being told that by your people and your government? Do you already hear that in some way? Many of us do who aren’t LGBT. Poor Americans are told that every day. They’re lied to when we say they’re that way because they don’t work hard enough and they’re too lazy to care about making society better. Black men are lied to that they’re not smart enough to do well in school, and they belong in the prison industrial complex because they’re a threat to society. Our country believes immigrants are such a threat that we need to build walls along our borders (well, those borders that connect us to a country where the folks are not white, the other border apparently isn’t as dangerous.) We even rename immigrants as illegal and as alien. Imagine having your identity be known as Illegal. I do not mean to truncate all these issues, or suggest they’re all the same. But I sure do hear the same rhetoric levied against us all, and am only left to wonder what more do we all have in common?
Our uniqueness, our rich diversity of experience and expression are killed by these words. Our souls are left for dead, and stowed away out of sight in our closets and our prisons. In the Christian scripture, I remember a story that may be of use here in understanding what we’re doing to ourselves as a people. The Book of John writes (John 11: 32-44). Mary (not Jesus’ mother) had lost her brother, Lazarus, a few days past and was morning his death. She hears that Jesus is near and runs out to meet him.
32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
…“Unbind him and let him go.” The story amazes me. I was raised always to hear it talked about as evidence of Jesus raising someone from the dead. But what’s the message? It talks about a man, Lazarus, who’s lying locked away in a cave with a rock blocking his escape. It talks about a man closeted away, with society having given up on him; all except his sister. Jesus had to come forth and tell Martha to take away the stone that made this cave this man’s prison. Jesus doesn’t say that he heals this man. Every other parable relates how he heals those who are ill. This one simply has Jesus say, “Lazarus, come out!” “Unbind him, and let him go.”
What queer words to use. His death isn’t of some ailment that needs to be cured. What’s killed Lazarus is the same thing that begs to keep him locked and closeted away in a cave of their own design. The disease is his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth… The disease is his face wrapped with cloth. The illness is with the people who can’t face to see Lazarus as he is. For me, Lazarus is the embodiment of every Queer person trapped alone in the darkness with few left to weep for them. Lazarus is anyone imprisoned by a society that prefers not to face who they are or what they embody. And weeping, Jesus stands on Lazarus’ side. “Come out! Unbind him and let him go.” …
In unwrapping the ties that bind, in dissolving those societal constraints that make us dead, we come out of the closet; we come out of the cave. Once dead to the world, we are alive with the faith that knows our purpose here is not to shudder in some corner lamenting what the worldly powers think or fear of us. Our purpose on this earth is to live the life we are given and to do so unbound; to do so with the strips and ties shredding to pieces in our wake. The cry of Jesus is a voice that demands we live in community with one another, not regardless of our differences – but because of them. The Christian Right’s desire to equate Queerness with disease is tragically misguided. This story tells me that the illness lies in our desire to foment separation; it’s in the proclivity to create caves, to create closets, to seek to imprison the body or the soul.
So I say LGBT Pride is your holiday too. Lift up people being themselves; being who they are. Celebrate in our connections, and our wholeness, and our honesty. Help dismantle the caves and the closets, and the prisons, and the walls that divide nations. Know that each of our struggles are connected, and we are stronger when we share in our trials and our successes. The struggle for LGBT equality involves lifting up people of color, and immigrants, and women – for LGBT communities are all these people.
So, to close… We’ve come a long way. We can openly serve in the military. Most Americans live in a state where marriage is open to all loving couples. The general level of acceptance in the broader nation has improved drastically. Sodomy laws have been struck down. Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, a famous actress and a famous athlete are positively (or at least favorably) depicted on major magazine covers. And we have a long way to go. Even in our own state, we can’t seem to pass basic protections for Transgender citizens so that they have the right to housing, and employment. And it’s local Long Island legislators that are contributing to blocking the passing of GENDA (the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act.)
In my own life, Brian and I celebrated our wedding a month ago with family and friends from all across the country. It’s good to be welcomed into another family and their welcome into your own. One of the natural components of marriage is to begin making choices that benefit your household – that are good for your family as a whole. As I wrote in our weekly e-blast – the Flash – I will begin commuting to the Fellowship from Northern Brooklyn sometime in late Summer. As my husband’s non-profit – where he’s been employed for close to 20 years – is growing into a 50 million dollar a year Cancer Research charity, some aspects of his job have changed and he’s often finding himself commuting 20-25 hours a week. A reverse commute for me would be less than half as long, and about as long as I’ve been accustomed to making for most of my life – including the years I served the Brooklyn church, and the year I served our congregation in Shelter Rock. It’s just a change in where I hang my hat, not a marker of anything more. But in light of Pride month, it’s amazing to be a minister for a religious community that is supportive of me, my husband, our family – and the very, normal choices all families have to make. Happy Pride everyone!
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
In this month, where our nation celebrates the lives and the struggles of
Transgender, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people,
help us to find a path forward,
where each of us may live our lives,
honest to who we are,
with grace and empathy for one another.
May the difficult lessons, and the times of strife,
nurture compassion in our hearts,
for others who struggle,
especially for those whose hardships are different than our own.
May the strength we learn in our tough hours,
help us to carry another forward when their time of need is at hand.
Mother of dignity,
when the world is telling us we have no worth,
help us to not believe the lie,
and so too, steer us away from words,
that may diminish our neighbor.
We each fall down,
moments of short tempers,
prejudices we hold,
or old injuries of the spirit that surface in hard ways;
may we be gracious with ourselves,
as we learn and grow,
with patience and care.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
We celebrate with our children and youth as they grow up and mature.
Today is a day of completion for them, and a new beginning.
Their dedication, and their study, and their service, and their joy
has brought them along another step in the journey of life.
May they carry with them the insights they have found from their own striving,
and through this wisdom,
may we all be rededicated,
to the work of building the Beloved Community
throughout our lives.
As our Coming of Age youth share with us this next step in their faith journey,
teach us to hear one another’s truths,
with an open mind and a loving heart,
and may our hands that help along the way,
be gentle and kind.
May today’s service be another model for building a community,
grounded in compassion, openness and acceptance.
Mother of Abundance, in the fullness of this hour,
help us to see the joy, hope and wholeness in this community;
may the words of our youth remind each of us,
that we all carry part of the story of life with us.
May our carrying be true.
This reflection was shared at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/7/15 honoring the culmination of two children and youth programs.
Our Growing Up kids told our story this morning, and our Coming of Age youth delivered our sermon this morning, so my words today will be brief. Curran, Samantha, Jacob, Katie thank you for helping to lead the service today. Mic, Jordan, Mila, Declan, Julia, Ben, and Teagan – thank you. Thank you for being dedicated to this faith journey and this community. Thank you for seriously considering the big questions in life. Thank you for committing yourselves to a project, with creativity and care. And most of all, thank you for also being teachers in this community. This is the very heart of religion.
Credo statements are where we rest our hearts. We are not a religion that rests its hearts in beliefs. In fact, we often have the most trouble when we commit too strongly to any singular belief – at least when we do so pretending that belief is the only truth. When you hear arguments in this Fellowship, you can bet two people have become firm in their convictions, and the first step toward peace is remembering we are together first and our beliefs are secondary. When we hear folks talk about worshipping idols, I think of beliefs first. They can sometimes take on a life of their own, and it can worsen the lives of all those around.
Credo statements are where we rest our hearts. Many of you came to some conclusions, at least for now, about the big questions in life – and that’s good. But I heard most of you also leave room for openness and a recommitment to living life to its fullest. That, that right there, is the soul of Unitarian Universalism.… Not ever fully knowing, but willing to act and live amidst the uncertainty. Fostering a sense of wonder for creation that leads to respect for our world and the lives of the people and creatures who are our neighbors. And the ability to speak your truth, with the person next to you who speaking their truth – with honor and love.
Our principles and our sources matter, and they form a pathway for right living – and they are the foundation for most of our sermons and all of our religious education. But some days they can just be words in our mouths. When the days come, and our principles feel like they are just sounds in the room, remember your sense of openness, and your compassion, and your yearning for a more just world – and you’ll find your heart there and you’ll find our faith there.
This sermon was preached on 5/31/15 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY. The parable of the three trees teaches us how to move through hardship, and accept Grace, when it finally comes. It speaks to the times when we haven’t caught up once more with the good in the world after a period of difficulty.
We have three trees in our backyard; a dwarf japanese maple, a dwarf breed of magnolia and a dogwood tree. Trees are gentle creatures that each have their own needs and habits. People far wiser than I tell me this, so I’ll believe them. But after this past year, I’m starting to see it myself. Our Japanese maple originally grew in our front, right up against the house. I think it was planted there when it was a bit smaller and the previous owners didn’t realize how broad they could grow. We transplanted it to our backyard where it would have more space and realized the back half of it had branches that were stripped bare of any leaves. You see, no sun had reached the back half of the tree where it was pressed up against the house, and the leaves simply stopped growing there.
It was a rough winter, and the other two trees appeared to have a hard go of it as well. Our Magnolia tree is evergreen. Regardless of how cold and stormy the winter was, the tree remained defiant against the season and stayed green throughout. The dogwood tree, on the other hand, probably had a few too many years of being left untrimmed, and was starting to have long spindly branches. It was basically growing mostly straight up and not out at all. We had to have them trimmed back, and as the winter came, all the leaves fell away and it looked like a tall, lanky stick. By winter’s end, the defiant magnolia, with its thick green leaves in the midst of winter, finally was worse for wear; it’s leaves had mostly turned brown from the frost. It was a sad looking backyard for a bit; a spindly dogwood, a brown magnolia and a dwarf maple, which we were unsure whether half of it’s foliage would ever grow back.
These three trees remind me of each of us, at different points in our lives, when we’re faced with an extended period of hardship. As Spring came around, the replanted japanese maple, regrew all its leaves. It had done fine enough in a corner with sunlight only reaching half of itself, but when it moved to a place with more light, it was able to grow to its full self. Sometimes, when we’re stuck in a place that doesn’t feed us, we need to move. And if we’re too deeply rooted in such a place, sometimes we have to rely on friends, or companions, to help us find a new path – we can’t always handle it all ourselves.
The magnolia tree was stalwart, and unrelenting in the face of the snows and ice. It wasn’t going to allow itself to hold back, or hunker down, regardless of what the world threw its way. And as a result, most of its leaves were totally brown and dying, or withered and most lost. As we approach June, with fertilizer, warm sun and lots of water, the beginnings of new leaves have started to bud. The tree will live, but it’s inability to take cover under adversity, made it slow to flourish when Spring newness and ease came its way. It reminds me of all of us, in those times when we decide to perpetually push forward, never giving ourselves rest or respite from the hard days. Not only can we burn out, and dry up, but when the days of ease come along, it often takes four times as long to recover than it would have if we took each day, pace by pace. The magnolia reminds me, we sometimes need to find our “off switch”, because without it, we may take a very long time to find our center and our vitality again.
The dogwood tree (next slide please), is doing great. It went from spindly, and bare to broad and full. That tree got trimmed back when it was time, and let itself lose its leaves rather than spend the energy to keep them green when they wouldn’t do the tree any good. As scripture says, “to everything there is a season.” Interestingly, the dogwood tree was the worst looking tree at the start of the winter season, and it’s the best looking as Summer approaches. We can feel thin and drawn out in the moment, but cutting back, and hunkering down for a time, may be all that we need to get through what might feel impossible at the time. We don’t perpetually have to be our best selves; sometimes being just ourselves, is the best thing for us in the long run.
Notably, the dogwood, the tree that was the most run down and bare, is the only tree our puppy goes to for shade in the hot days when she can’t handle the direct sun beating down on her but she still wants to enjoy the grass. When we’re weak, there may always be a day ahead of us when our strength is something we can give again to another in need.
The poem, “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, I read earlier, reminds me of this parable of the three trees I just gave. For many of our graveside services in our memorial garden, that poem is one I often read. Mary Oliver is certainly one of our great poets. Here is a brief excerpt from a few lines: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.” We even have those words in our hymnal. I usually hear those words calling us to remember to live life fully, with the people precious to us, while we’re here. And to give us permission to continue living with meaning and purpose after our loved ones are gone.
After a time, what we’re holding onto is no longer that which we loved so dearly. After too long, healthy grief can turn into something that makes us hold onto our hardship instead. No one else can ever tell any of us how long is too long, and deep loss may never fully go away. But there comes a time for all of us when holding onto the deep sense of loss becomes too much, rather than healing. We may need to hibernate for a time within our hearts, but when the season turns, the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and to those we so dearly miss, is to allow ourselves to grow green once more; to wake to another Springtime.
Sometimes hardship lasts a long time. As the story of three trees attests, we had one bruising winter, and it’s not just hard on the plants, it’s hard on our spirits. More seriously, our Fellowship has endured an almost two year long span of time, where we lost too many members or immediate family member to death. It can be too much to bare. We experience loss individually acutely; but we also experience grief collectively. And this does not happen in isolation. We hear stories of neighborhoods across our nation in crisis and riot. We know our soldiers are still abroad, and have been for too long a time. May all who serve return safely, and may we find new ways to bring peace into this world.
Can we imagine our theme this month of beauty, and wonder what would it mean to be a people of beauty, in light of long hardship and grief? It can mean giving one another space through the difficulty. It can mean helping a friend replant themselves in a better spot with more warmth and more light. It might mean, giving ourselves the time and care to slow down and to hunker down so that we can come through to the other side sane and whole and ready to be ourselves once more. It can mean not trying too hard to stay too strong when we really need to lean on another. All of these things can be ways to be beautiful in the world in the face of loss and adversity.
But eventually, and always, the season turns, and hardship gives way to grace. When we let it, it’s a beautiful gift. But we don’t always let it; we don’t always accept the new times when they come. Accepting Grace can be a spiritual discipline for a people of beauty. When the wheel turns from hardship to newness, beauty unfurls in corners we may have forgotten to look for when grief or hardship refocused our vision. But beauty, or life, or newness is there – ever reminding us to ‘hold what is mortal to our bones as if our life depends upon it’ but not so long that we can’t ever let it go.
Hardship, in any of its many forms, can turn into something we hold onto. Maybe grief isn’t your burden; maybe adversity is the thing you can’t seem to shake. We may never like it, but it can be like my Magnolia tree that only knows how to stay at its fullest, even in the worst of times. I will be stalwart and see this through because that’s who I am. We can sometimes wear hardship as a badge. Pushing people away who might hold us up during this time.
Or maybe our challenge is sharing with everyone we know just how busy we are – I know I’m not alone with that challenge – as if busyness were a noble medal to shine and pin to our jackets. I think our corporate or consumer world teaches us this un-virtue – that busyness is a good thing to have. Maybe beauty is found in being less full all the time. Maybe it’s found in not becoming identified, in our spirits, with the adversity before us, or the busyness we enter and reenter into again and again. Maybe the struggle is real, and must be honored; maybe it helps us to grow into the people we are, but can we do that without also letting the hardship name us with its own words – as its own.
But Grace comes. That which we have done nothing to deserve, but feeds and nourishes us all the same, ever comes again and again. Winter turns to Spring. We each find new homes in the most sudden of places. The job comes around, or the grief weighs just a little less heavy on our hearts than the day before, or we find the strength to put down that bottle of liquor – finally. We often think of these things in terms of willpower or endurance. Sometimes they are. But I think just as often, maybe more often, something just turns in the world or in our hearts, and newness is before us in the places where habit and hardness once resided and all the world is different. Grace.
May we be people of beauty. May we learn to be gentle with one another never knowing what burdens our neighbors carry silently next to us. May we find ways to see Grace when it comes sudden before us, and grant us the strength to accept its gifts – especially on those days when we have become so adjusted to a world of hardness and hardship. May another way be found, and may we have the wisdom to take it when it comes.