Archive for October, 2013
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.