This sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship of Huntington on Sunday, August 25th, 2013. It looks at how our lives are in constant transition and how that can be a source of strength for our community.
You can view the youtube video here. Unfortunately, due to a technical glitch, the last 15 seconds were not recorded. The text though can be found below.
I’ve been reflecting a lot this Summer about being immersed in a season of change in my life. I hear our congregation talking about all the transitions going on for our community as well. Some of the stories are energizing and sustaining; some of the stories speak of slowing down; some have suffered losses in their family or continue to wrestle with health concerns that don’t seem to go away; while others are celebrating new beginnings with college, or school, or work. Each of these are happening all the time. On any given day, look around and you’ll see a little bit of sorrow and joy in each of our faces. Although sometimes it’s hard to notice if the person doesn’t want you to see the vulnerability.
We often talk about the Springtime of our life being childhood, and the Winter being our elder years. In some basic ways, the metaphor has merit on its own, but I’m not sure it goes deep enough. Reincarnation aside, Winter inevitably turns to Spring – and I have yet to meet anyone who’s successfully turned back the clock to childhood. It’s more helpful if we consider the seasons in each time of our life. However old we are, there are always beginnings and endings. There are always times of excitement and exhaustion. We can be renewed by Spring, or we can be reflective in the Winter. This can happen through the course of the day, but over the arc of our lives it’s most visible in hindsight. We see it most clearly when we turn a new leaf in our story.
What does it look and feel like as we turn to our next leaf in our own lives and the life of this congregation? Ask yourself right now –What season are we in, at this moment, in your own life? What season is our congregation in? What transmutes within us as we take on the long view of a million or more such turns in the life of a soul or a community of souls?
Is the turning of a new leaf a page unread, the dying of Autumn, a Spring time resurrection, or just the bending of our soul toward the motion of the sun?
Change happens. And will continue to, for a very long time. Someone comes along and hears a thing, or a phrase, or a way of living, or a tradition. She thinks it’s meaningful, and helpful, but has a new use for it. She takes it and runs with it; hopefully bringing the idea a new life and a new direction. She makes it meaningful and relevant to her generation or to a new time. All of that’s critical in the life of a community or a person. Times change and so do needs and outlooks. But an idea or a ritual or a tradition came from somewhere and had a meaning and a value all its own. It grew out from a place of shared values of another people or another time. It can be a snapshot of a generation or a family. Where it goes and grows toward is just as important as where it came from – what soil it was rooted in. An idea or practice can grow ignorant of its foundation, but will be more rich and certainly stronger for the knowing.
What season we’re in will often influence how we react to the intrepid new leader or idea. Maybe more importantly, how we feel about the season we’re in will influence our response as well. Are you in a dry time of your life? Will new pathways offer renewal and a turning to Spring? Or are you feeling bitter and willing to allow the coldness to wither new openings? Or are you in a time of reflection in your life where it’s not yet time for new beginnings?
What happens when the ideas one generation runs with are more sacred or more sensitive than a simple time change – like when our shared “Centers meal” happens during the month? What if it involves a lifetime of work, or a value that formed your youth? We know how hard this can be for everyone involved when new inspirations set off a struggle of values. “But we had that in our family for generations?” or “But I grew up with children in worship with us – for the entire service.” or “For me social justice work is really about…” (and I’ll let you fill in that blank knowing that it will be different for almost every one of us.) We can all imagine the pain that can quickly sprout from these instances.
I found some helpful advice to reframe the discussion in a book called,
“From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older” by Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. It’s a book about aging, and eldering. In a chapter about mentoring he writes,
“Think of a canal lock that fills and empties, allowing boats to rise or descend to different levels. Because the elder is at a higher level of experience than the younger colleague, mentoring enables the water to move from one level to another through spiritual intimacy. In this exchange, communication is always a two-way process that mutually benefits both parties. The elder has more life experience and wisdom, so naturally the higher seeks its own level by flowing into the lower. At the same time, the mentee, having more vitality, naturally rejuvenates and invigorates the elder with energy and an influx of fresh ideas. Without this exchange, the elder may remain locked in the past. With their penchant for experimentation and their forward-looking mentality, young people give elders the gift of encountering the present and anticipating the future. What mentees receive, says Maurice Friedman, professor emeritus of religious studies, philosophy, and comparative literature at San Diego State University, is a readiness to bridge the past and the future.”
Hopefully, we’re all familiar with canals and locks otherwise this quote’s going to be a tough one…. It speaks to movement, back and forth. The interchange keeps the water fresh and refreshed. Wisdom lifts us all up while itself needing new life to stay fresh. I like it because it also depicts how we’re all in the same system of locks. It’s not a struggle or fight between one generation and the preceding, but rather a long river flowing from one age to another – interconnected, interspersed, and continuously reliant upon one another to move its vessels and cargo from their source to their destination. Each new decade being another lock that can open up incredible potential to face the world as it is – with all its challenges, changes and new experiences. The rabbi finishes this thought with this line, “The twenty-first century is nothing but questions that we’ve never heard before. In the fire of a mentoring relationship, young people develop a readiness to meet new, unforeseen situations in ways that carry life forward.” It seems to me that we’re invited to appreciate the value our elders have, with their longer view, in collaboration with the contemporary age’s great translators – our newest generations – the Gen Xers who are now in their 30s and 40s (when did that happen!?) and the Millennials who now range from those graduating high school to folks in their very early thirties. (I feel like we just coined the phrase Millennial the other day, and in a few short years we’ll start hearing what our current teens’ and grade schooler’s generation will be named.)
If mentoring relationships can be a collaboration of minds and spirits; realizing that both benefit from the connection; that both grow from the interchange; then how renewed – how inspired – can a religious community be as groups of people learn, interact, exchange and connect? We can readily think of the benefits of this in the realm of the technical and professional. The details and the proclivities make sense in congregational mentoring relationships that involve architectural students, or financial expertise, or master teachers. These are all wonderful opportunities, but they are ones that we can often access in the secular world as well. As a religious community, our central commodity, our competitive advantage is in the realm of values. We’re also a rare opportunity to explore values, ethics, and theology in a communal- and self-reflective way. And this is wherein our community saves lives and renews dreams.
Mentoring values is an art. It’s integral to the process of eldering. I have the suspicion that eldering is not so much about learning more stuff and knowing how to do more things and better. I expect it’s less about expertise. Eldering is coming to grips with the reality of the brevity of life. An appreciation for how precious and delicate we all are; that life ultimately is more about the questions of value than the details. The “whys” that lead to who we become overshadow the “hows” and “how tos” of daily living. Eldering is living from a place of this kind of knowing and seeking to mentor from that locale. The “longer view” speaking to the clarity of those of us whose sight might be more acute. If values are the central act of religious community, and I believe it is, then this is the greatest gift our elders can offer – both to the wider community and to themselves.
Now what is this “longer view?” I don’t believe it’s simply a factor of duration, although that does help to wizen all of us. One truth the book “Age-ing to Sage-ing” speaks to is that the failings and disappointments that sometimes feel like catastrophes may in fact be the doorways to new opportunities. The new, the fresh, the next great thing sometimes can’t come about without something else ending. The longer view reminds us that “not all that is bad,” is actually bad, in the long run. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi writes, “When you are young and vulnerable, you see the world as either for or against you, and this view is reinforced when people do hurtful things or betray you. When you are old (of) age and climb the platform of broader understanding, you can reexamine and contemplate your foundational views of the world and recontextualize what happened to you from a more objective, less impulse-driven philosophical position. In this way, you do not have to remain imprisoned in your earlier conclusions about life.” I find that it comes down to what stories we tell about our lives – what stories come out in the moment, and which ones paint a decade or a generation. When we’ve experienced less, we may be more prone to fixating on how difficult, or downright awful, an encounter might seem. But in the longer view, most of these stories seem to open up more doorways than we can possibly imagine.
When I was in my early twenties, I was working in Information Technology. I had a solid job supervising a 24/7 computer Helpdesk; with what was then my longest term relationship, little debt and more vacation time than I could possibly use. That was a story I told for several years. But most of it was really a trap for me. I had taken that job as an opportunity to get professional experience right out of college and save up enough money to actually go into non-profit work. The truth is that I was never going to leave that job unless it became a horrible place to work. One new Vice-President later, and suddenly so many qualified, capable and expert colleagues left; many of us emotional wrecks in his wake. I could find no place of compassion or care for this particular VP. I could not find a way to “story” that experience in the affirmative. In the blink of a few months, I was miserable and needed a way out, and couldn’t see the silver lining at the end of the road. Looking back with that longer view, without that Dilbert-esque VP, I simply would not be where I am today. Back then, I honestly couldn’t imagine this new world at all.
The acute clarity of the short-term vision brings the pain and difficulty vividly to the forefront. As the Rabbi says, “When you are young and vulnerable, you see the world as either for or against you, and this view is reinforced when people do hurtful things or betray you.” And we don’t need to actually be young to still see the world this way; but it is the shorter view. I had a teacher once in Human Development point out accurately, “We are all the ages we have ever been.” It’s probably the most useful fact I’ve ever learned in 22 years of school. You don’t have to be young to act like a baby. Every developmental stage we’ve ever gone through stays with us and occasionally pops back up. But as we grow older, there are new vantage points. We can choose to revision all that has come before us and see it in the bigger picture – and still – we don’t need to be old to realize this truth about life. Doorways forever open and close, but the ones we walk through were necessary to get to where we’re going. We can always choose differently, excepting the realm of death, but the new destination will never be the same.
Our elders among us can help remind us of this truth; they can help steer us back on the path of moderation, compassion and forgiveness – ever reminding us that our family and our religious community matter more for how well it strives to support us than it seeks to always agree with us. Our longest-term members (regardless of age) have seen a congregation of shared values living out the past thirty plus years. We pass on our values in light of the changing seasons, and activities, and habits, and styles. There is an essence to the life and spirit of this congregation that can be felt and can be lived, but words would rarely suffice. It is the task of “eldering” to witness this transition; to strive to crack it open for the next generation to partake and to be enlivened by this sacramental work; for the transmission of communal spirit is a sacred endeavor. In the awareness of the precariousness of life and the appreciation for endings that enliven our beginnings we come to know the time of our lives. We honor the best of ourselves by blessing the sanctity of the lives we share in community. In doing so we become a blessing ourselves to the world around us.
Sometimes the season we’re in in our lives isn’t going to shift neatly to the next, or turn back to an earlier time. Sometimes when we live out ourselves fully, and honestly, we can help another person make a profound choice toward wholeness – wherever they are in their path – whichever season. I’m thinking in particular right now of the story in Georgia this past week, and the hero Antoinette Tuff. A young gunman comes into a school to kill. He’s mentally ill. He’s off his medication. He’s ready to die. He sees no reason to keep on living. Ms. Tuff just starts talking to him. She talks about her life. She talks about her losses and disappointments. She treats him like a human being at a time that most of us wouldn’t even be able to think straight for fear. She has prayer in heart – and she simply relates.
In a later interview she would go on to say, “I loved him right then. I didn’t know him, but I loved him.” In an absurd moment of risk, she was fully human, fully, and honestly, herself. She remained open to her assailant’s humanity. She was mindful of the danger to the children in her protection. And she would later say that she gives it all to God – that she’s no hero. And the young man stopped and said, “I didn’t take my meds today.”… And all those children lived. Where we are in our lives matters profoundly. How we remain open to the people around us can be life-saving. Being centered when we’re terrified, reminds us that there is a deep well in our souls that is ever waiting to be drunk. Tending our relations – friend and stranger alike – changes the world we live in. All is connected – always.
At the start of this sermon I asked two questions. “What does it look and feel like as we turn to our next leaf in our own lives and the life of this congregation? And what transmutes within us as we take on the long view of a million or more such turns in the life of a soul or a community of souls?” I cannot answer the first for any of us. But I can ask all of us to be open to accepting a new look and a new feel to the next page of our communal story, for the leaf must now turn. For the second question, I hope that for each of us we learn from the perpetual transition in our communal story. May it remind us that in our own lives each new challenge or adversity is for but a time – and it might just be something that opens a new path that is wondrous all in its own. With each new step, something may pass away as the Autumn leaves; something may finally birth anew as our current Springtime demands; and sometimes the change is nothing more and nothing less than our souls bending toward the motion of that perpetual light which transcends and imbues all life.
 “From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older” by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. p192-193; 1995.
 Ibid. p. 193.
 Ibid. p.97