This sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, on Sunday, August 4th. It looks at how we can stay grounded during times of transition. You can view the video version of it here.
Last March I was staying in a retreat center as part of a two and a half day long workshop I was co-leading. We were teaching about UU Identity to religious educators and ministers. The poem we just heard by Neil Gaiman reminds me a little bit of one of those days. It was about five to noon and I was sitting in my bedroom, wondering if Huntington was going to call, and offer me the candidacy for your next minister. Giants could have feefofummed across my window and I’m not sure I would have noticed.
We all have that happen to us so often in our lives. We’re waiting for the job offer that never seems to come. Or college acceptance letters seem to travel at the speed of snails. Or we’re grappling with the possibility of having to accept that a serious illness may have just entered our family. Everything else seems to go out of focus and we fixate on the thing that will validate us, or show us the way forward, or redefine all our future days. We’re waiting for the map to unfold and make clear where our path will take us.
But sometimes, it’s much less serious. Sometimes we get distracted by triviality, or get sucked into another person’s opinion of us, or define our day by a thousand small things. In a very real way, a million magical things happen every moment we are here to see them – whether we take note or not. So long as we are breathing, the seemingly fantastical is right before us. Our kid’s laughter. The love of a partner. The life that teems all around us. Breath itself – a completely miraculous gift we only notice when it’s hard to find. When you hear me speak of “reverence” in my sermons – it’s all of these things that I point to. It’s the feeling of another sun rising – through no fault of our own, and it’s the feeling many of us experience toward God. It’s one aim of religion to help us to come to a place where we can appreciate that subtle awareness – without getting too caught up in defining it.
In many ways, that’s the core of the story we heard this morning about the awakening of the Buddha. There will always be a thousand distractions, some small, some serious – but how we connect with a sense of reverence in our daily living will determine the depth of our life. It’s not just a witticism for the spiritually enlightened. It’s practical advice for daily living.
I’ve heard from many of you – prior to candidating week in April, and since then – that in many ways our Fellowship is exhausted. We’ve gone through so many transitions…. I’m your third minister in two years…. Your previous called minister ended his time with you dealing with health concerns. Your previous religious educator ended her time with you caring for her husband during his terminal illness. Many members had to step up to respond in loving and supportive ways. Some of you may have felt like you were all of sudden employees of the Fellowship to ensure that things continued to work. Thank you for that. Thank you for doing what you felt needed to be done. Thank you for caring for your staff as best as you were able. And some of you are likely completely wiped from the effort. For some of us, we may feel soul weary. That CPR for our spirits wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
The practical advice for daily living is that in times of change, or stress, or extra effort, we must be extra diligent to find room in our hearts for reverence. Or we will burn out and what we sought to nurture, or protect, will become a burden we begin to wish we could just drop. And soon we may just drop it. We can avoid this by developing spiritual practices that draw us to experience a sense of gratitude in our lives. What might feel like a daily dose of CPR at first, can transform into a healthy regimen. As a side note — The graphic that Jennifer S. posted to our online calendar for this sermon’s topic had basic instructions for CPR. It ended with the advice: “Don’t hesitate. You can’t do harm.” For the meditators amongst us the advice would sound like – “Hurry up! … Sit!”
In the months to come, we will focus on growing more opportunities for the discipline of spiritual practices. I know that we already have groups that meet for meditation and yoga throughout the week. And our religious education program is right now attending a yoga class. Historically, there were also circles that met that I believe were called small group ministries. We will be growing more such circles after September where a group of 6-10 people can come together monthly to reflect on the content of our services – to share, to go deeper, to be nurtured in community. I will be crafting each of the monthly sessions in response to the sermons in the month and in response to what’s going on in the world around us. More information will come out later this month. If you’re interested and have experience facilitating such reflection groups, please do call or email me soon. We will need several folks to help make this a reality. Also, starting in late September, I will be co-leading a monthly Spirit in Practice workshop after coffee hour looking at a different spiritual practice each month.
As I preached about covenant in April, I will be inviting our committees and task forces to begin their work this year with building covenants together. The practice of living with respect to our relationships and our commitments is also a discipline that is not always easy, but central to our faith.
We’re experimenting this month with including silent candle lighting during our service so that we can come more together in ritual. I hope to continue to include our children and youth in our time of meditation and prayer. As a religious community, centered in shared spiritual practices, it is vital that we raise our children to appreciate these practices as well. Or they will not be here when they are too old for children’s religious education. Our youth may not even stay through High School. It’s also crucial, that we share our sacred practices with all ages. Because as a community – we are Fellowship of all ages – our practices should reflect our identity and our values.
You will often note that with all of our spiritual practices, I will often use different ways of talking about the same things. This morning alone, I’ve already said prayer, meditation, reverence, and gratitude. For some of us, this is a given. For others it can be a challenge. Openness in times of change can be a discipline all in itself. I am forever less concerned in the details of creed as I am in the experience of a meaningful practice. Or as Nina shared in her moment of witness this morning – we’re not searching for the truth, there are many truths. I hope that we can each be renewed by our Sunday services – each in our own way. That times of silence can give us the breather we need, while times of movement and ritual can energize. Where one thing may not speak to us, may we learn to appreciate how it very well may be speaking to the person who is sitting right next to us.
Robert Latham, an author and a UU minister, talks about this in a slightly different way. He suggests that the old trinity of Unitarian thought – that we’re grounded in Freedom, Reason and Tolerance – is probably not the best matrix to be relying on. To put it briefly — saying we’re “free” implies anyone who hasn’t joined our faith isn’t themselves free. It’s not a statement that’s very generous of spirit to other traditions. Where reason will always be important to us, it only touches upon one half of our mind (or maybe less depending on how important you rate virtues such as compassion and empathy.) And tolerance — try to think of the last time you said out loud — “!I am so grateful that you tolerate me!” and meant it! No one likes being tolerated. At best it’s the baby step toward living with respect for the world around us.
Rev. Latham asks us to measure our faith by another standard. He suggests: Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. I’ve talked at length about the first and the third already. Whereas Austen went into more detail about mindfulness in our story this morning of the Buddha. Mindfulness is a general awareness of what is going on before us blended with our more intuitive core. This triad is a spiritual practice in itself. It can directly help us in times of stress and change – whether the matter is frivolous or life-altering.
A practice of openness can save us from some arguments with friends, fellow congregants or (maybe on a good day) our families. It’s hard to assume good intentions with all the world. It’s hard to accept that there might be another way of seeing something when our feelings have been hurt, or we’ve been asked to change some long standing practice. But in religious community – at least in our Unitarian Universalist tradition – we are called to be open. We don’t necessarily need to change our minds, but our faith demands of us that we don’t come to the table with our minds made up. And that we do so knowing that we’re in there in relation to the people around us.
The practice of mindfulness asks us not to do a thousand things at once. For some of us – not doing a thousand things at once – is a really hard thing… not to do. It also involves allowing our reason to dance with our heart. When we get lost in our emotions to the point where we can’t see the road before us; or we endlessly fidget with all the options ahead of us, mindfulness calls us back to a place of centeredness. We can appreciate the feelings and the challenges without losing our place in this world. We already have a place in this world. The struggles and the challenges before us do not define our value. We are already of value.
A practice of reverence may be the most counter-cultural act we can ever make in our consumer-driven world. Messages, media, public pressure and finances all urge us to gain the next thing; to desire what we can’t have over the gifts before us; to be consumers in our world rather than be citizens. Reverence informs us that all this is fleeting, that the quest for the shiny new toy is the least way to experience our lives. Or in the words of my mentor, Rev. Forrest Church we ought to “want what we have.” Reverence teaches us to value what is always before us.
All of this is more than a philosophy to live by. It is a discipline. I can really relate to the feelings of exhaustion or trepidation the Fellowship has struggled with during all this transition and challenge. I will share with you a similar story on a smaller scale. I call it “What I Did With My Summer.” I started a new job, moved out of my city where I lived for the last 10 years, got engaged (feel free to clap and applaud now) and bought a new home. In some ways it’s all celebratory. In other ways it was the most rigorous endurance run Brian and I have ever experienced. The level of absurdity involved in trying to move out of home, purchase another home from a seller who themselves are trying to buy a place to live from another person who’s trying to sell and buy at the same time — and the M.C. Escher chain of commerce continues on and on — is incredible. We can focus on our stuff being in a pod in front of the home we own but can’t enter while we’re staying in a hotel room for 10 days, or we can appreciate that life is still pretty amazing. That we’re employed, getting married, and have the ability to keep a roof over our heads. Which narrative we choose will define our day.
I stay centered through this (well mostly centered) because of my spiritual disciplines. I try to stay open to the ebb and flow of crazy in my day knowing that there’s always a story hidden behind every challenge. I seek to remain mindful that this and that will sometime pass. And I seek ways to appreciate the beauty in our world. For the past 16 years I’ve honored a daily commitment to a walking meditation. It is the absolute rarest day where I don’t walk for at least 3 miles. The practice calms and centers me along with reminding me that my soul is not defined by the work that I do. I am not a machine here to accomplish things, but a spirit that is here to encounter other spirits. Often I feel like I don’t have the time to walk, but I follow the old Rabbinical saying: “I pray every day for an hour, except for those days when I’m too busy. On those days, I pray for two hours.” As it happens, I also pray every evening – though I promise you not for 2 hours.
I would like to remind you of the words we began with this service by Maxx Kapp to light our chalice. “Carry the Sacred Flame to make light the windows of the world. It is we who must be keepers of the flame. It is we who must carry the imperishable fire. It is our watch now! It is our watch now!” Keeping the flame of progressive faith alive it not solely about social justice, or being a voice for the oppressed, or healing the pains of the world. It is all of these things for sure. But it is also keeping our own inner flame alive, loved, and vibrant. May we seek ways to practice a discipline of spirituality, and may we do so with gladness in our hearts and kindness on our lips. For to care for the world we live in, we must first care for our sagging shoulders, and our weary grins, knowing that we never do so alone.
 Special thanks to religious educator Christopher Buja for bringing this essay to my attention.