This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on Dec 8th, 2013. It reflects on the intersections of the B-52s, T.S. Eliot and Nelson Mandela.
A few weeks ago Brian and I went to see the B-52’s in concert in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Twenty-five years after their hey-day, they were still a raucous party on stage. We had a lot of fun. I want to focus in on though what happened before the show. It was an experiment in human psychology and self-awareness. The show was in a massive urban bowling alley, of all places, that had a standing area with a stage that easily fit 1000 people. We got there early for dinner – yes they had a fancy-ish restaurant in the mega-bowling alley. After dinner we bee-lined for the stage to get as close as possible since it wasn’t a designated seating area. We were lucky enough to be be in the second row of people from the stage. There was only one person between us and the band at any point of the show.
As time went on, we began talking with the people around us. It was all innocuous chit-chat – none of which could I recall today. After a bit, the fellow in front of us walked away. After about 10 minutes of the spot being empty, I moved forward to lean my back on the stage. I was getting stiff from the hour plus standing still. After a bit, that same fellow came back – walked up right next to me and began poking me in the side saying “that’s my spot.” “I was standing there.” (poke, poke, poke.) I told him I was just leaning back, and moved (the two feet) back to where Brian was standing.
Some time went by, and the fellow disappeared again for a while. Not wanting to get poked again, I left the space empty. After about 10 minutes, a woman came up and snuck into the empty spot. I began eating my proverbial popcorn and waited for the movie to unfold. In short order, the guy came back and did the same poke, poke, poke – “Move, this was my spot. I was standing here.” In a moment of luck, he found a second New Yorker that was willing to move away and just let it be without any drama.
Some time went by, and the fellow walked away – again. Like a comic routine, the same story unfolded for a third and final time. Three strangers in a row, he sidled up next to and poked them in the side saying, “this is my space.”
I’m pretty forgiving of many things, and I’m rather Zen about the big problems in life. But walking in front of me and stopping, blocking a subway or train door, and randomly poking my side are each ways to really work me up. I let it go, this time, but I wasn’t social with this guy for the rest of the night.
The next day we’re scheduled to meet a friend at Cinema Arts here in Huntington. We were going to see the opening of the LGBT film festival, and our friend was hoping to introduce us to area folks he knew. I turned to Brian and said, wouldn’t it be funny if one of the friends he introduces us to was that space-saver from the concert last night. No way. Well, as it turns out the next night we wind up meeting this same guy from the concert in Brooklyn, here in Huntington, and he’s friends with a friend of ours.
Priceless as this is, it’s not enough for my fiance. At the event he strikes up a conversation with this fellow about how concert-goers can sometimes be really difficult. The guy agrees whole-heartedly and begins to tell us stories of past concerts where some attendees would be really obnoxious about space – about where they were standing and who gets to stand there. (I swear, I’m not making this up.) For bonus points, and a last ditch effort to get me to smile, Brian asks the guy, “Do you think those obnoxious people even realize that they’re being rude or dramatic?” …And the guy says,… “No, I don’t think they even know they’re doing it.” It’s at this point that I have to stop looking at Brian, or I’m going to burst out laughing at the banality of it all.
It all makes you wonder how often we’re guilty of the things we complain about. It’s an absurd story, but a good reminder that whoever we interact with today, we very well may interact with tomorrow. But maybe, most importantly, this concert-driven story tells me how we can carry around for a long time the really small stuff and make it really big. We can flip the story of being bumped two feet into a great wrong that requires us to poke and poke and poke – even if we don’t learn our lesson the first three times.
Moments like this, grievances like this, can overwhelm us. Who here has ever succumbed to vivid moments of annoyance over banal pettiness? Walk with me now through what I see as a primer for moving through the mundane and into the sublime. T.S. Eliot’s poetry does this for me. His body of work seems to address our insecurities and our foibles while pointing toward that which transcends it all. Eliot was actually raised a Unitarian, but left us as an adult to experiment with various religions and ended up with traditional Christianity in his elder years.
There’s a line from his poem “The Love-song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that reminds me of the banality we sometimes succumb to. “For I have known them all already, known them all: – Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; I know the voices dying with a dying fall, Beneath the music from a farther room. So how should I presume.” The larger poem is a metaphor for a man unable to interact or flirt with a group of women. It touches upon feelings of inadequacy many of us feel in our lives. But this particular line has never left me. We know each minute that we can count. We’re creatures that in some ways live meaninglessly to a clock; or terrified through conversations we’re too scared to engage genuinely with; or base our lives around the same every day habits. I’ll be at Starbucks every morning, waiting in line with all the rest. Is my life about the next stir of the coffee spoon, or is it about something more? All of this leads to the poet’s question, “So how should I presume.” Presume to break free of the tick tock of whatever clocks we live by? To presume to talk with those we don’t feel worthy to speak with? Presume to not live our lives as though we were in a dying fall, or our music was less than another’s? (A dying fall is a musical reference to the gradual decrease in volume in a piece.) Measuring our lives in this way, through coffee spoons, is to deface what is timeless about us. It subverts what is eternal about the depth of life and gives us the greatest lie ‘that which is mundane is most significant.’
It doesn’t put us at ease, or find meaning in our days. In fact, making the mundane our focus in our lives, actually creates a sense of discord. It creates an emptiness and lack of peace that isn’t natural for humans – even if it is regretfully all to common. When we live for our habits, or live for that exact space in front of the stage at a B-52’s concert, or wallow in our presumptions – we miss out on life. Or as Eliot puts it in his later poem “The Hollow Men”, “We are the hollow men, We are the stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw. Alas! Our dried voices, when we whisper together, are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in our dry cellar. Shape without form, shade without colour, paralyzed force, gesture without motion; Those who have crossed with direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom remember us – if at all – not as lost violent souls, but only as the hollow men, the stuffed men.” Eliot has a way with the dramatic turn of phrase, but he often critiques us for not living fully; for not taking steps when it’s time to do so; or for not richly keeping the gifts we were given in this precious life. Succumbing to the trivial, we trade our living birthright with a hollow shell. There’s a way to live life with color and not solely shades of grey, but it requires a directness to it and an attentiveness. The trap of emptiness or meaninglessness only closes when we live our lives in tepid, unreflected ways.
An excerpt here from his poem, The Dry Salvages (rhyming with assuages), (the part we heard earlier as one of our readings)
“To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual past times and drugs, and features of the press: and always will be, some of them especially, when there is distress of nations or perplexity, whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgeware Road. Men’s curiosity searches past and future and clings to that dimension. But to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time, is an occupation for the saint – no occupation either, but something given and taken, in a lifetime’s death in love, ardour and selflessness and self-surrender. For most of us, there is only the unattended moment, the moment in and out of time, the distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, the wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightening or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses; and the rest is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action. The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. Here the impossible union.”
For me, this T.S. Eliot’s most spiritual poem. If we live hollow lives due to our quiet muttering or our dry cellars – as he puts it – this poem is a response to that malaise. The spiritual practice is in the attended moment. It’s finding the moments of beauty and peace, and delicately placing them upon the altars of our consciousness, and simply bearing witness. Whether they be shafts of sunlight, or winter lightning, or times of celebrated joy or relief, it is in these moments that we apprehend the intersection of the timeless with time. It’s in these actions that we put down our coffee spoons, and stir our lives to another thrum. Nothing neat. Nothing measurable. Intimations… Attention… Hints directing to something more than the measure of minutes and seconds…. It’s in these moments that we incarnate – fully human – fully holy.
These moments though, aren’t always based in the peace of nature. Sometimes they shine through in our messy human interactions – filling our hearts, reminding us that we are part of a greater story that began before us, and will continue on when our part is finished… On Thursday, Nelson Mandela died at home after a three month battle with a lung infection. He lived a life that we should celebrate, even through all the pain and loss. Going from serving 27 years of a life sentence for speaking out against a racist, genocidal regime to serving as that country’s president – is a story that will be a bastion for human perseverance for the ages.
In my life, one of my moments between the moments involved President Mandela. It was a few years after he was elected President. I was an undergraduate studying abroad at Oxford University, and he was speaking at the University about peaceful struggles, about apartheid, about reconciliation. I didn’t get to hear him talk. I just got to wait in the streets as he passed by triumphantly. He was coming to talk at one of our world’s greatest institutions for learning, and he was received by streets packed with people as if it were the Thanksgiving Day parade in NYC.
People wanted to witness his presence. We knew that the world was a different place because of this soul. We knew that peace was just that much more possible because of Mr. Mandela. I think deep down in our souls, we also knew, that this human saw extreme suffering and saw extreme joy. And he brought extreme joy, and extreme relief, to so many people living in bondage. Whether it be the bondage of the oppressed, or the bondage of the oppressor. He showed us a way forward, that involved peace and reconciliation.
His methods involved truth-telling. Stories of those abused, and stories of those who did the abusing. His Truth and Reconciliation Commission involved brave moments of authenticity – and those brave moments allowed a nation to move through the pain through extreme acts of attentiveness. And at some small corner of a street, in a country that was a world away from South Africa, all of us were there celebrating our moment between the moments. We’re human. There is something more to this life than empty stirrings. We’re witnessing a life that reminds us how to live. All I can say that happened was that he smiled, and waved. But that would be painting the most surface of pictures. It’s in moments like this that we remember our connections, our actions, and our strivings – have impact, have meaning, and have relevance – to the people around us, to the generations that follow us – and sometimes to the world beyond our quiet streets.
Not to romanticize our public honoring of President Mandela, our own nation was not always a supporter of him. Though no evidence ever directly tied violence to his actions, the NY Times does write that, “in 1961, with the patience of the liberation movement stretched to the snapping point by the police killing of 69 peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville township the previous year, Mr. Mandela led the African National Congress onto a new road of armed insurrection.” We can decry acts of violence, but as a nation it’s hard to critique another country’s revolutionaries when our own patriotism is rooted in similar actions. Mr. Mandela served a life sentence though for something else. What began with being “charged with inciting a strike and leaving the country without a passport” according to the NY Times, ended with “sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state.” Mr. Mandela’s appeal to this was “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he told the court. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
His life was as far from T.S. Eliot’s pastiche of the Hollow Men that I can imagine. No quiet whisperings, no empty mutterings, but a life of substance and dream, hope and rigor. Or in Mr. Mandela’s own words, “There is no passion to be found playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” And a life that our own nation had extreme conflict and varied responses to. Although our President Carter put pressure on the South African government to release Mr. Mandela, the next presidency reversed that policy. In 1986, President Reagan said, “In defending their society and people, the South African government has a right and a responsibility to maintain order in the face of terrorists.” Far from a terrorist, Mr. Mandela would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
I mention Mr. Mandela today, because he lived a life that was worthy of remembering. I also feel that lives such as his, are the direction this morning’s poet was pointing toward. The poems I’ve read from by T.S. Eliot today spanned in time from World War 1, through World War 2. They were not ignorant of the great tragedies, challenges and hopes of their day. And they ultimately sketch out the impressions of an ethic for an era that continues to hold vibrancy today. And Eliot makes those sketches rooted in a theological mindset.
I’ll close with the other poem we read earlier from – the excerpt from Burnt Norton: “ At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, but neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance, I can only say there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.”
This is the theology that grounds the poetry that implies the ethic. We find sustenance in the moments between the moments. Not the practice, not the doing, not the striving, but the being present to the world around us. When time unfolds between our breathes and life inhales our patience. Those timeless glimpses can nurture and sustain us. The path of the infinite pressed down upon us and we know we are more than we are not. It validates all the rest; all the effort, all the striving, all the doing. Knowing that we are not merely the sum of our actions – although our actions do matter – but rather we are the witnesses to the eternal scope of life, albeit for but a moment. A moment may be long enough to sustain us.
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/1/13 celebrating Hanukkah. It reflects on the liberating roots of the holiday.
Earlier this week, Pope Francis made a statement that the media found incredibly shocking. The Pope called “unfettered capitalism ‘tyranny’.” In his statement, he went further than previous comments criticising the global economic system, attacking the “idolatry of money” and beseeching politicians to guarantee all citizens “dignified work, education and healthcare”. Possibly, most notably he asked, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
At casual glance, following only the media’s portrayal of the statement, one might think this was a radically new position for the Catholic Church. However, Pope Francis also said he was merely continuing the thinking of Pope Benedict who had planned to say as much prior to his sudden retirement. And the ethical teachings of Jesus have long and clearly been understood to support the poor and struggling in the world, over those with means – who remain hard of heart.
Quoting the Catholic Church is an odd choice to begin a celebration of Hanukkah. But the two are very connected. The current Pope was formed in Latin American Christianity – which over the past 40 years or so has strongly been influenced by Liberation Theology. This branch of Christian thinking grounds itself in the biblical moments of Liberation. Think Passover where the Jews are freed from slavery. Or Hanukkah, where a people rise up to overthrow foreign ways. In these stories, and more, we see a religion that teaches that God sides with the poor of the world. That the oppressed will be set free from their oppressors.
This thinking says that our faith can’t be in money, or the stock market, or any of the thousand things our commercials tell us we need – to be whole. Liberation doesn’t mean freedom to do what we will; rather it means freedom to be whole; to be a meaningful participant in community. That there is hope in the world. That worldly powers do not always win out. That another way is possible. That we can be authentic. That we matter.
As our reading said today, “I am a millions-of-year-old wonder…. that I saw a bluebird with my millions-of-year-old eyes and heard it sing with my highly advanced evolutionary ears… Daily newspaper headlines could say, ‘Mary Feagan Exists Again Today!”. That’s the religious message. The Pope’s observation is sad truth – the newspaper headlines all to often read instead “the stock-market dropped two points” rather than cover the great moments of tragedy or success in our personal and communal lives.
Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights because of the miracle of lights. In the story, it is said that although the Jews only had enough oil to keep the sacred fires lit for one night, the oil miraculously kept the fires burning for 8 days and 8 eight nights. It reminds us that somewhere deep within us, is a real strength. When we feel empty, or alone, or defeated – there is still room for a miracle. Human perseverance is the real story in this and every age. Every age believes itself to be exhausted, or worn out. Every age laments what has passed away, and believes its trials are the worst we could ever face. As horrifying as history has been at times, no matter that we may feel like we’re running on empty with no where to go, Hanukkah reminds us that we have all the stores we need for the story ahead of us – so long as we ground ourselves in community.
The revolution of this spiritual people did not happen as individuals. It birthed in families, and houses of worship; it was grounded in the community that it sought to save. That is the crux of Pope Francis’ critique of unfettered Capitalism. It becomes a tyranny of the few over the work of the many. The community is secondary to the success of the individual with a myth that the individual’s success neatly and evenly distributes out to all who are blessed to witness their magnificence.
To go a little deeper into the example I mentioned in passing for last Sunday’s sermon – Walmart. Having employees work on Thanksgiving Day is in itself not a moral failure. Some people are just scraping by and need the work. Having been raised in a working class family, with a mom who worked retail, and a dad who often worked opposite hours so that I was never alone – I appreciate the reality of working holidays. Or as a minister, Holidays are usually the time when my work is the busiest – seeing family who live out of state is almost impossible. It’s the nature of my vocation. The moral failure is a system that makes it so that people must work on holidays in order to survive. To compare to one of its competitors, Costco pays its Cashiers an average of $15.06/hour vs Walmart’s $8.51/hour. That’s about $31,000 per year vs. just under $18,000 per year. Both companies are doing exceedingly well for annual profits. Both are clearly Capitalistic. But Costco functions in a model where the Executives don’t need to make eight hundred times the salary of their cashiers, only a fifty times. According to CNN Money, Walmart CEO, Michael Duke’s, compensation is the same as what 796 of his employers make in a year. Costco CEO, James Sinegal’s, compensation is the same as what 48 of his employees make in a year. I can’t think of a clearer articulation of the differences between unfettered Capitalism and one with regulation or moral regard for its impact on communities and families. We can choose a Capitalism that serves all of us, or we can celebrate a Tyranny this holiday season. And we all have shopping choices to make when we do so.
The Hanukkah story we told this morning was less about money and more about religious authenticity. According to Michael Lerner, a PhD, a founder and editor of Tikkun magazine, there’s another angle to the story that does closely relate to all of this.
“…Jewish Hellenizers saw no point in resisting Greek rule. Their goal was to live in harmony with the powers that ran the world. They could benefit from the connection to the expanding trade of the Hellenistic world (the Greek-inspired cultural world). On the other hand, the vast majority of the Jewish people were small, independent farmers who lived on the land and brought its produce to Jerusalem three times each year to celebrate their hard-won freedom from slavery. It was they who bore the brunt of the taxes imposed first by the Greeks… These Jews resented foreign rule and detested the city-dwelling elites who seemed to be earning favor with the Hellenistic conquerors, imitating their ways, abandoning the religion of the past and becoming worshipers at the shrine of political and cultural “reality.” From: “Jewish Renewal: A Path To Healing and Transformation”, Lerner, Michael; 1994, p. 272-3.
In other words, some were comfortable with the new world and its expanding trade, and some had their work taxed more than others. The Hanukkah story was about foreign power, religious authenticity, and the differing responses from those that have and those that had not.
Our theme this month focuses on Peace. Hanukkah has a complex relationship to this. Although I tend toward pacifism, the reality is that both this story and the story of our own nation, are rooted in Revolutions in the physical sense. It’s easy to critique stories of violence in the Christian and Jewish Scriptures. The idea that God condones violence by one people over another is an easy thing to try to stand above and look down upon with derision. It’s particularly common in countries like ours where there have only been a few moments in our history where our own people’s safety was at risk on our own soil. It’s easy to judge when this nation has never been an occupied people by a foreign power. When one’s nation is no longer its own, these stories of liberation are real in a whole new way – a way that some of us can relate to, and most of us might not be able to. When liberation is a metaphor for feelings of dryness, or being trapped in bad patterns, stories of God-sanctioned violence seem overblown. When liberation is a desperate need – whether from a foreign power, or slavery, or genocide – nothing short of power may seem enough. We have to hold these stories in this tension – remembering that whatever privilege we may hold in our lives may make them harder to empathize with – but not any less true. And for some of us, we can easily empathize with the liberating message.
Nonetheless, the miracle of the Hanukkah story is two-fold. First the more magical side where one day’s amount of oil is enough to last till our reserves are filled in other ways. I mentioned that already. The other is the historic reality that a rag-tag group of farmers were able to overturn rule by the world’s most powerful ruler. It didn’t last forever, but its moment came. When we’re struggling in this world to defeat oppression, or counter the ills of a world ruled by the very, very few – we can remember this story and know that other ways are in fact possible. The success of the revolution was historic fact. We can whittle away at so many success stories, or religious texts, but this one had a concrete reality we can learn from.
If the Hanukkah story has many angles – the quest for religious authenticity, the desire for self-rule, hope in the face of adversity, and a turning away from valuing world-spanning commerce over local community – which thread will you pick up in your own life? How does it move beyond the history and speak to the present? …
In the book by Michael Lerner that I quoted from earlier, he goes on to suggest a reflective practice where we ask ourselves questions for each candle we light. I’ll focus on a few of them now, but if your interest is piqued you can grab “Jewish Renewal: A Path To Healing and Transformation” to read more. The first night’s question is “Imagine your life freed of the need to accommodate to people with more power than you. How would your life be different?” There are many ways we can answer this as individuals, but I’d like to focus on the nature of our month’s theme – peace. This question feels like one rooted in two of our principles: Where we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and where we affirm the interdependent web of life of which we are a part. The spiritual practice of reflecting on how those with more power influences our lives, can inform how we treat others. It informs how we can build peace in our lives. Sometimes we will not be able to change the oppressions that harm our lives. Sometimes we won’t be able to wave away the abuse of power a boss, or a friend, or a teacher holds over us. But we can learn to not replicate those ills with the people around us – or the people we hold some sway over. This is the foundation for peace in our world. Break those chains – in both directions. If we can’t break the ones that bind us to those with more power, we can break the chains we may hold on those with less power. We need to take the time though to reflect on where we hold them, and who we hold them over. Sometimes we’re harmed. And sometimes we’re the ones causing the harm; sometimes we’re holding the chains – and they bind us just as strongly.
The question for tonight, the fifth night will be: “Imagine what your neighborhood would be like if people really connected with one another as caring neighbors. Now imagine what you’d have to do to get others in your neighborhood to talk about what they’d want, and how they’d go about getting it, so that everyone would live in a friendlier and less alienated neighborhood.” To begin this month of reflecting on peace, this is your homework. How could we connect more with one another? What would others have to do to make that so? What would you have to change in your own life to accomplish that? Would our priorities have to change? Would our schedules need to lessen or be redirected? Is a less alienated, and less alienating world, worth your effort? Because it would take nothing short of all of us to accomplish that, right? If you come up with an idea you want to bring to the Fellowship, please reach out to our Hospitality Team made up in part by Cathi Zilliman and Jackie Agdern. I know they’d love the help!
This is the revolution of the spirit that Hanukkah calls for. To assess when power brokers of the world are running our lives in our kitchens or our living rooms. To determine when our farmers have lost real connections with our urban workers. To acknowledge when we’re following the gods, or the goals, of another people, and let go of our own values and ways. And armed with all that self-awareness, to free ourselves from the many yokes that oppress us – or that serve to gather our strength to oppress another. The revolution of the spirit is in living more authentically, and covenanting to affirm and promote the authentic living of our neighbors – both local and foreign – knowing that however far apart we may live, the Spirit of Peace calls us to see the stranger as our neighbor. In returning to our spiritual roots of this holiday, we return again to our authentic selves. We return our souls to the discipline of authenticity. We devote our minds to the practice of peace.
This children-friendly homily was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 10/27/13 as part of our annual All Souls Day service. It reflects on two stories – The Water Bearer (Chinese Traditional) and Muddy Feet (Contemporary about Hosea Ballou)
All month we’ve been talking about helplessness in our services and my sermons. We all go through times when we feel that way – when no matter what we do, it feels like we can’t really do anything about whatever it is. Our story this morning reminds us that even when we feel broken, or down, or weak – we can still bring life to this world. I love the image of the watering can – or clay vessel – that’s just cracked enough to spill much of its water on the road along the way. We mean to be watering that garden over there, and through our flaws – through our holes – we wind up growing a garden everywhere we go.
While I talk, I want to invite anyone who took a piece of construction paper and crayon to draw a picture of that garden in your life. If you came forward today with a photo of a loved one – a person or a pet – that you lost – you’re welcome to draw the garden for them. Maybe draw them in your garden. Whether you’re a good drawer or not doesn’t matter. This isn’t about being good, but being loving. Think about what are the flowers – what are the things that you help grow in your life? What are you good at? Or if you’re really feeling on a roll – what are the things that you’re not so good at that sometimes surprise you and wind up helping the people in your life?While you’re doing that, I’m going to keep talking. I’m happy for you to keep drawing though!
Sometimes our mistakes can make us feel less than whole – not so good. Maybe we’ve really messed up. Maybe we feel we didn’t try hard enough. When this happens, we can feel like we need to beat ourselves up over and over – as if that was going to make all things right, or make the mistake finally work, or bring someone back into our lives. All of this is natural and normal. Sometimes we make mistakes and we need to make good on those mistakes. But sometimes we allow our guilt, or shame, or fear to start to define who we are – on the inside – to ourselves. As if the place where the water is leaking out of the clay vessel defines who we are as a person – for all times. That’s not very helpful, and it usually doesn’t make anyone feel any better, right?
I’d like to look at what our First Principle says about this. What’s our First Principle? (Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person.) We often talk about it as belief statement. We all believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Well, most of the time we do believe that; that we must stand on the side of love in our human relations. Every person is deserving of love and compassion. Just because we live, each of us are deserving of being treated with respect. Even though we don’t always succeed in this, this principle reminds us of our struggle toward that goal.
It also reminds us that just like those we strive to support, we too are deserving of respect from others. We fight for others’ rights, and we struggle for our own. This principle reminds us that when folks are treating us poorly for our differences, we do not deserve it.
If all of the rough treatments we may be subjected to by others is wrong, what of those we inflict on ourselves? Who do we go to when our harshest critic and the most unjust judge is no one other than us? Sometimes, we forget to tell ourselves that our First Principle applies to us as well. When we beat ourselves up for the mistakes in our lives – way past any point of helping to make good on them – we’re not living up to our First Principle.
That principle is also an action statement – it’s a promise of sorts. We make a promise to each other, and to ourselves, that we’ll affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity in every person – even ourselves. When our watering can or clay jar has cracks in it – and know that all of our clay jars will have cracks in them from time to time – it doesn’t mean that we’re not worthy. Sometimes we have to find it in ourselves to follow our faith and remember that our flaws do not lessen who we are.
I want to tell you another story now. Feel free to keep drawing – maybe draw some of the things that happen in this next story. (Tell story of Muddy Feet about Hosea Ballou.)
By a show of hands – who here has ever come home with muddy feet? What happens? Do our parents still love us – (even if our carpets might hate us?) Does it mean that running around and ruining things with mud is ok? We have to try our best not to make those mistakes. But the mistakes don’t mean we’re not loved. They don’t mean we’ve lost who we are – we still have worth. We find dignity in how we handle our missteps.
Little Hosea also had another belief – or lesson he learned. This was about what happens when we die. All these photos we have on our memory table are pictures of loved ones who are no longer with us. None of us really knows what happens, but many people have many different beliefs. For little Hosea, his faith taught him that God is all loving and that all of us are inherently good despite our mistakes. That Heaven is a place that we’ll all go to someday. Historically, this belief was central to what the second U in our name meant – Universalism. That all people – universally – are worthy of love and Salvation. Over time, the lines around this belief have gotten a bit fuzzy with each new generation; but the core of the teaching is still important and healing. We all make mistakes, we all get our feet muddy – and still – and still – we are loved. Life is sacred despite our short-comings. No matter what the state of cleanliness of our toes – we can always come home.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
As the wheel of the year turns through another season,
with the chill in the air growing stronger,
we pause to remember those we have lost in our lives.
We remember the small moments that stand out amidst our great stories,
the breakfasts that were unnoticed at the time, but take on so much more now;
the laughter, the hope, the dreams.
May our loss turn in our hearts into something different,
may we find a profound joy in the gift of knowing those we have loved;
and may it teach us to cherish those around us even more.
May our remembering of the lives we have known,
teach us to live fully into the lives we still live;
deepen our ties to the community we are surrounded by,
to the families of our birth or the families of our choosing.
For our stories continue on,
our world needs our loving all the more
in the seasons of cold winds, and long nights.
Remembering that the wheel continues to turn,
and the warmth we once knew will return anew – again and again.
This sermon was first preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Sunday, October 13th, 2013. It explores the role of Grace in our lives, through each season of our life.
I think it was the third day after we were stuck in our 10th story Manhattan Apartment following Hurricane Sandy where we finally were able to safely walk down the 10 flights of stairs and out into the flood-struck City. People were checking into the few open cafes who were running on diesel power. One kind coffee house set up a power bank for folks to recharge their phones so that we could update loved ones. Detritus was everywhere. At least one building completely lost its facade – leaving it open like a perfect giant-sized doll house. A chunk of pier – not a piece of wood – a chunk of pier – rested in the middle of Avenue B and 20th street. The traffic lights were out for a good 40 blocks, and yet Taxis were never so polite, and crosswalks never so regular. Countless numbers of trees were knocked down, power was out, food was spoiled. And then I came upon this rose … the one that’s up on the screen right now. Cars and trucks and buses were still strewn about on 14th street from where the storm left them dead, and this single rose survived this storm. In pretty immaculate condition.
I used to hear the song we just sang, “I Know this Rose Will Open,” as a perfect instance of maudlin fake solace. I want music to feel more real; to open our senses to the difficulties in the world, and offer a way through them without ignoring them. And the lyrics used to feel like they were offering empty promises. That’s until I met this rose. Maudlin stops being maudlin in the face of everyday miracles.
Sometimes the rose does open.
When I was a teenager, I kept myself busy. That’s a character flaw I’ve yet to grow out of. I replaced lunch with an honors class. I replaced study hall with choir. I stayed after school for Cross-Country or Theatre. I was at the gym five days a week, and ran 7 miles a day right after school. I tried to control every bit of my day, so that I could feel like I was succeeding. I was finding the fullness of time, but not the fullness of life.
I also had the competing desires to lose weight and put on muscle. I was about 55 pounds lighter than I am now… and I thought I was fat. It’s amazing how the pressure we put on our youth, and the pressure our youth put on themselves, can translate in weird ways – ways that bring harm to our teens that we would never imagine or wish on them. I remember the day, after working out for an hour in the gym and running the usual 7 miles on top of that, when I looked down at my leg and realized what I had been seeing as fat, was in fact muscle. I was so busy trying to achieve something more than I thought I had, that I stopped allowing myself to see that I was already there. One of my mentors, the Rev. Forrest Church, would often remind us to “Want what you have.” It’s difficult advise to hear or live by. I already had what I wanted, but couldn’t even see that. That phrase would often remind me of my teenage years, and how not wanting what I had, kept me from appreciating and living the fullness of life.
I don’t know what shifted inside me that allowed me to see me for who I was. It’s probably the first moment of Grace that I can vividly recall. I’ve had others, but I was too young to remember them. Being born was probably my very first moment of Grace, right? We come in this world through no fault or effort of our own (- that we know of at least.) That moment in the gym felt like that. So many people hold onto poor body image for years, unable to free themselves from the traps of the mind. I woke up, but I didn’t do anything to wake up. I just did. Moments like this, echo backwards and forwards through time for me. They resonate with that rose in the hurricane: bending toward the light; unfurling its petals as a gracious rebuff to the destruction all around, despite the absurdity of its possibility. Openness – openness to our selves, to others, to loving ourselves or others – doesn’t always come, but when it does, we don’t achieve it through effort or actions. It’s a gift that we allow to happen. We can get in the way, or we can simply be. But sometimes, we learn to love ourselves.
Sometimes the rose does open.
Parenting, or success in our careers, can be very similar creatures. We don’t always have control over what comes from our love or care. We don’t always know which way the road will turn; what will happen to our kids, or what jobs we’ll lose. Some of us have huge families we’re born into and love. Others have a tight-knit family they’ve made by their own care and effort. Careers can be the same. We can fall into the vocation of our dreams, or cobble together a living from so many different parts of our lives.
Often when we’re teens, dealing with school or considering college, we’re given a false-road map; one that many of us continue to buy into throughout our lives. We’ll work hard at school; we’ll make or fail the tests that matter; by our Junior Year in High School we’ll know what major we’ll focus on for college and that’s what we’ll be doing entirety of our lives. Frankly, it’s a silly map – one that will only get us lost if we trust it too much. There should be a legend at the bottom of the map that reads “*Objects May Appear Closer Than They Really Are.”
I started out studying environmental science at Rutgers, Cook College. Dropped out, and started up again a year later studying Teaching; then English; then Anthropology, then Archaeology, then Religion. I went on to work in computers for the first 5 years after college. Funny, right? We tie ourselves in knots throughout our lives hoping we can control what comes next, as if our best laid plans will come together as expected.
Sometimes they will, most of the time they won’t. It doesn’t mean that we don’t plan. We have to plan if we want to have any chance of getting to where we want to go. Spiritually, we go off course when we think the map we’ve drawn though, is the same as the life we hope to live. The map, the plans, the details – are not the fullness of life; they’re the fullness of time. The art of growing up, is learning to leverage the details to enjoy our life, but not to replace our life with the to-do lists.
Or in parenting – who here as ever read a book about parenting? So many of these books tell you how wrong you are, or how right you are, or how to hover over your kids, or how not to hover over your kids. It’s like reading an owner’s manual to a car – except you don’t know which car it’s for – it’s just for “cars.” My favorite parenting book is called, “Nurture Shock.” It’s my favorite because it never intended to be a parenting book, even though it’s a parenting book. The biggest lesson I took from it is the simple truth that of all the tricks, tips and things we can do for our kids – the most important lesson we can ever give is that when the nearly-verbal child points at a spoon – we in return say “spoon.” Everything else are details.
That’s the essential lesson in life. Being mindful to the moments when our best course of action is to say, “spoon.” Whether growing up throws at you challenges around continuing school, or career, or parenting, or not parenting – we struggle to learn to live in the fullness of the life before us, not clinging to the to-do, or the details or fretting over what might be or never was. Over the course of a life, all our choices lead us to who we become. We may feel trapped by what we once were, both good and bad. Both are always part of us – as the good and bad has nurtured the person sitting in your chair today… but we’re not trapped in any one of our many lives we lived. Doors close and open, sometimes through our actions, and sometimes despite our actions. Beyond what we can control – are the moments of grace. For me, Grace came in each career rebirth. From computer guru, to community development specialist, to religious educator to congregational minister. There were things that I accomplished to make each happen; but being open to the possibility of change – was not an act that could be measured anywhere on a map. In all of our struggles, it is possible to hit the reset button when we need; I only know that it rarely seems possible… until we actually do.
Sometimes the rose does open.
For years, I would spend the night of Christmas Eve over at the house of a close friend’s grandmother along with her extended family. The family friend’s grandmother wasn’t blessed with good mobility in her elder years, but she had her clarity, kindness, and wicked scrabble moves. (I still attribute some of my mad scrabble skills to learning from one of the greats in the game.) Her home would be decorated in every corner for the holidays. We’d attend worship at her Baptist church, and follow it with the best Chinese take-out made to order. Those Christmas Eves were something I cherished. My own grandmothers had passed years ago, and this was one way to see them again.
Then one day, she had a stroke, and should have died, but the visiting care-giver resuscitated her – against her previously written instructions. The clear- thinking grandmother I knew never really came back. Now relegated to a nursing home, there would be no more Christmas Eve’s, or take-out Chinese food. The dementia that set in was strange – as so often it is. When her grand-daughter and I would visit her in the nursing home, she would completely remember me. The part of the brain that stored the memory of meeting me remained largely intact; but her grand-daughter would be a stranger to her. She would remember her own children as if they were still in their teens. Time didn’t mean the same thing any longer. The year would be in the 2000’s with me, the 1960’s for her children, and her grandchildren didn’t fit anywhere.
That fits well into what many of us would consider a nightmare. You prepped as best you could, handling the paperwork you needed to handle; raised an awesome family that you loved and who loved you well into your eighties; who even brought their friends around to spend time with you for the holidays – and chance rolls snake eyes – memories blend, disappear, and you’re no longer self-sufficient. Your helpless, confused and don’t recall many of the highest points of your life while your loved ones watch helpless themselves to change or heal what will remain broken.
That can happen. That can be what chance brings to us. For some of us, we’re carefully treading in this territory right now; whether for ourselves, noticing some things slipping more readily from our minds – or for our loved ones, wondering how we will cope with slowly losing the person we knew. There are practical matters that need to be attended to, medical advice that might be sought after, or financial concerns that should be addressed. Each of these can matter immensely to our quality of life. And yet, our perspective may matter the most for our sense of wholeness. How do we view the changes – beyond being horrified, or fearful?
For me, the moment of grace was in the witnessing her granddaughter still visiting her daily or weekly; she still visited even though she wasn’t recognized any more. Grace is found when we focus on the relationships we built and whose love continues on in our passing. There’s no thing we do that makes this love endure. We don’t deepen our love in the fullness of time with busy-ness or tasks; we make eternal our love through the fullness of life. I want to live my life in such a way that should the worst happen in my elder years, I know the people around me will still love me and try their best to make my close as peaceful as possible, knowing I helped to make their life as joyous as possible. You can’t quantify that; and it’s what life is about. It’s what we mean when we speak of reverence – at its core. Being in awe of the depth of humanity; being in love with the possibility of the human spirt – unfurling even when its bud is swaying in the storm. It is not given to us to know when our bud will open; it is given to us to know that it may at any time; again and again and again.
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on Sunday, October 6th. It explores the theme of Helplessness through the lens of trust. There’s a strong focus on advancements in medicine and the spiritual implications of cancer.
On Monday night I enjoyed attending an awards dinner hosted by the Cancer Research Institute. They recognize patients who have beaten the disease, and they award the scientists and philanthropists who make it all possible. This Institute focuses on Immunotherapy. It’s research helps the body combat the disease on its own. It’s also the organization where my fiance is the Marketing and Communications director.
My table had one scientist and two families who had members who survived cancer. One was a mom who went on to birth two children who are now 2 and 5 years old. The other family were the Whiteheads, whose daughter Emma, “a six-year-old girl from Pennsylvania with end-stage leukemia whose life was saved by an experimental treatment, an immunotherapy that turned her own immune system into a cancer-fighting army.” “She was near death; she had relapsed twice from chemotherapy,and doctors had run out of options. Desperate to save her, (the NY Times writes) her parents sought an experimental treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, one that had never before been tried in a child, or in anyone with the type of leukemia Emma had. The experiment, in April (2012), used a disabled form of the virus that causes AIDS to reprogram Emma’s immune system genetically to kill cancer cells. The treatment very nearly killed her. But she emerged from it cancer-free, and about seven months later is still in complete remission. She is the first child and one of the first humans ever in whom new techniques have achieved a long-sought goal — giving a patient’s own immune system the lasting ability to fight cancer…” and just this week, she went for her 18 month check-up.
I can’t imagine what that family must have gone through. Cancer is never easy on anyone – it’s never easy on any family. Some of us are dealing with cancer in our congregation today. We lost a long-time member, Laura Costello Sorge, a little over a week ago to one form of cancer who was only 62 years old. But it is particularly hard trying to imagine the sense of helplessness and confusion that a 6 year old child would be challenged with. She’s had a lifetime (in fact in her whole life up to that point) being cared for by a loving family. Holding on to as much cheer as she can, and gifted with an abundance of energy the rest of us would envy. But she’s been cared for up until this time entirely by her family. At six, she has no agency. She has no ability to make life-decisions on her own. She’s learning about the risk of death in the most intimate way possible. And she’s not at the steering wheel of her own life. She can keep up a great attitude, but her wellness is completely dependent upon others making the best choices they know how to make. Fortunately, in this case, she has one amazing set of parents – and some great doctors.
Emma aside, the same goes for every baby that comes into this world. They aren’t able to control, choose, or understand much of anything. I know, some of you parents out there are saying I’m wrong – that at 2am that baby has complete control over your life (and at 4am, and 6am and… and…). But the infant may be able to influence adults, but the child has no agency themselves. If we walk away, they are helpless. Emma wasn’t going to get well on her own. Spiritually, what can we learn from that deep place of helplessness?
We can learn that helplessness isn’t inherently a trauma. We are each born into it, and someday each will return to it, but it’s a natural state of living and being alive. Do we approach helplessness as the infant? Having moments of wiggles, having moments of fear, having moments of confusion – but always knowing and trusting the source of life that brought us here? Or do we forget the lesson of the infant? That we’re alone; that there’s no one to help; that helplessness means tragedy? Tragedies of abuse aside, we learn to trust others through our helplessness.
Trust – one of our most crucial virtues- means nothing if we always have control and power; if we’re never reliant upon another. Trust also teaches us how to be human. Because helplessness is the normal state of affairs in life. We don’t make ourselves breathe. We don’t bring ourselves into this world. We don’t control the factors of chance or luck that make us thrive or wallow. We are helpless before the love of others, or the lack of love of others. We can’t control our parents’ failings as parents or their successes. We can make the most of our talents, but we didn’t put those talents there, nor did we earn the fortune or poverty of our upbringing. Infancy taught us to trust in the face of helplessness as if our life depended upon it – and it did. And it continues to depend upon that trust this very day.
If we can’t let go; if we can’t occasionally be powerless; if we can’t lean into trust with another human being – we’re living as less than human. We’re a cog in a wheel that must always turn just the right way. Always produce; always succeed; always win. But never be alive. Be grateful for our moments of helplessness, as best we can, for they open up opportunities to rest in the arms of another loving force that’s all the harder to see when we pretend we’re perfect.
Emma’s story has another side to it that was deeply and personally very moving for me. “To perform the treatment, doctors remove millions of the patient’s T-cells — a type of white blood cell — and insert new genes that enable the T-cells to kill cancer cells. (According to the NY Times) [t]he technique employs a disabled form of H.I.V. because it is very good at carrying genetic material into T-cells. The new genes program the T-cells to attack B-cells, a normal part of the immune system that turn malignant in leukemia. … A sign that the treatment is working is that the patient becomes terribly ill, with raging fevers and chills – a reaction that oncologists call “shake and bake….”. I’ve lost a teacher, a mentor, friends and even two former boyfriends to that ugly disease, HIV. Knowing that virus … might actually be able to be used… to give some 6 year old girl her life back… is immensely healing for me. That science can turn around something so harmful to bring about life, is amazing.
The science also brings a metaphor about helplessness to light. Our child patient will not get healthier without appearing to get worse for a time. The oncologists’ termed “shake and bake” is horrifying to witness as a parent. Your child is on a ventilator and unconscious. She is as helpless as the parent feels. It’s in this state of helplessness that the body heals. It’s in the weakening of the body, that the body learns to kill what is killing it. The helpless child learns to beat one of history’s nastiest killers (Cancer), after being taught how by another one of our nastiest killers (HIV.) There is no amount of usefulness, or productivity, or power that will help all the Emma’s in the world learn how to heal themselves; it’s in the place of weakness that they learn strength.
Of course, helplessness does not mean victimhood. It doesn’t mean to learn to seek out places of weakness, or abuse, or violation and stay in them. When there’s an abuse of power in the relationship, helplessness becomes victimhood – and there is no virtue there we need to nurture or seek out. Learning to trust what is worthy of your trust is the spiritual virtue.Learning to deserve another’s trust is also a spiritual virtue. It’s in the exchange of trust and earning trust that we are more fully human. It’s in this exchange that we bring our talents and gifts fully to bear in this world.
Sometimes we feel like we’re helpless when all that’s changed is how easy things feel, or how much influence we have in the world, or we no longer wield the same power we once did. That’s not helplessness. That’s change, or letting go, or making room for another to have the same chance you did. When we have more power than the people around us for a very long time, it’s a form of privilege. In letting go of privilege we are not weaker for it, or discarded, or less relevant. We’re being more fully human. In our interdependent world, we are more spiritually alive when we allow others to fill the shoes we once did – and to do so with grace. Newcomers (regardless of age) will need good mentors who have made room for them (regardless of the mentors’ age.) The infant who has grown into adulthood isn’t making the parent irrelevant – they’re simply living their life as they were meant to. Roles change with time. Youth and beginnings fade away. Helplessness and inexperience give way and transmute into something else over time. Life does not tarry in yesterday, nor do all roles remain eternal.
Helplessness can teach us much. It can also keep us stuck in life. If we’re the type of person who loves to be relentlessly useful (a phrase I routinely borrow from our District Executive, Andrea Learner), we’ll love to enter situations where others are relentlessly helpless, or who simply would rather be cared for in all things. It’s a quality that challenges me personally. I am too often relentlessly useful. As a spiritual community we are called to challenge that when it becomes complacency; or when it deters us from following the responsible search for truth and meaning. Being helpless and being stuck are not the same thing. We should strive to learn from the first, and grow through the latter.
If you approach your congregation, or your family, or your job perpetually as the person who’s always got the answer, the only one that could do something right, or you just know in your bones that no one else will step up if you step back – you might be guilty of being relentlessly useful too. It doesn’t mean drop all of your responsibilities, or walk away in disgust that someone does something slightly differently than you would have. It simply means taking a step back, over time, and learning to be a resource. It’s an opportunity to experience new things; to learn new skills; or maybe that other lesson that we learn from childhood that we often forget as adults – to play some more in life.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
We hold in our hearts this hour all the people in our neighborhoods,
and in our world,
who are struggling to get by;
searching for a job that seems to never land;
who are wondering where the next meal will come from;
who are looking for a roof to cover their head for one more night.
If we are in relative comfort, teach us not to forget the pressing needs of our neighbors,
that we have a role in lifting one another up,
knowing that we are who we are due to all the people that have helped us along life’s path.
If we are aching to find a way through to another day,
remind us that a way can be found,
that hope is a value to strive for,
to keep reaching out,
to keep letting in.
As our nation waits before the theatrics of politics to settle,
where financial risk is far too lightly threatened,
help our leaders to regain perspective.
May our ideologies,
not become postures,
that endanger the well-being of those most at risk in our communities.
Teach us to be nimble where we are stiff,
Open where are closed,
and to lean toward love when our hearts are hard.