This sermon was preached on Sunday, 12/14/14 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at the wisdom of Julian of Norwich to help ground us in times of suffering and loss. It addresses our current moral crises with the death of black men on our streets, and the use of torture in our government.
On Tuesday, we had another Nor’Easter blow through our area. I was drenched from head to toe after running around to pick up bagels for my monthly clergy gathering – which this time met here at our Fellowship. Opening the umbrella, while carrying a Box of Coffee, my right hand limited by a finger splint due to a mild case of tendinitis – was just not worth the effort. So I gave up on the umbrella and went the route of Aquaman that morning. When my colleagues arrived a short time later, they would helpfully point out, “you’re wet,” as if I may have missed that fun fact.
As you can imagine from the work we have to do on our parking lot, the grounds here were no better than I was. Our southern entrance had a lake that started at the street and went half the way back. Our northern entrance was dry, but there was a large pool just past the front lot. Walking up to the office entrance, you could see two inches of water pooling up on the grass. By noon, there was water leaking down a chimney and through the wall into our office; the wall that divides the main office from my office. The pre-school housed here was closing early and parents were picking up their kids several hours early. We’d later learn of flooding in the basement of our cottage.
Thanks to the tireless work of Susie, Frank and Scott, (and possibly more folks,) we’d have trucks here the next day pumping out our lakes and our basements and surely disappointing the migrating ducks and geese that saw a new vacation home forming. Downed trees are or have been removed. At last update, I believe work on improving the condition of our lot for the winter will begin on Monday. We should see less lakes and less flooding very soon.
With every major project, things will get messy, or there will be surprises uncovered as the work to make it better gets underway. When you know something’s not working, fixing it isn’t always neat. But we try not to get frustrated by the next problem as if it were a surprise or out of the blue. When something’s not working, fixing it isn’t always neat, but the new problems don’t mean it can’t be fixed. Sometimes it just takes will.
As I was in our office hearing about all the extra storm-related challenges we’re facing, the next thing after the next thing, I had a moment where I felt like it was a mundane parable for our country which is struggling with much more serious woes. The news has been very rough lately. How rough it’s been for some of our people isn’t new, just how conscious mainstream America has been about the tragedies, is new. Last week’s sermon was a difficult one to preach and a difficult one to hear. A few people came up to me after the service to say that it was exhausting or unenjoyable – but thanked me for preaching what needed to be preached. I’m grateful for a community that is willing to reflect on such an impossible situation – because if we can’t work on healing racism in this country, we have no foundation as a religious community. When you know something’s not working, fixing it isn’t always neat. Sometimes it just takes listening.
Where I was outraged by the deaths of so many black men going unaddressed, this week’s Senate report on the CIA’s use of torture completely exhausted me. Watching the media spin doctor calling a spade a spade, so that we can either continue to feel good about ourselves as a nation, or so that some of our leaders are not tried in the Hague, is dispiriting. But I think it’s connected. How we treat black bodies in our nation is somehow related to how we treat brown bodies in our time of perpetual war. Our morality on our streets, is connected to our morality in our not-so-secret interrogation chambers. Now we know, for a fact, that there’s a real problem with how our government honors our founding principles, and honors international human rights laws. We can choose to spin ourselves in circles to deny what the Senate Report found, or we can choose to begin the work of fixing what we know isn’t working in our leadership.
But this week, I have no answers. I have no easy action steps for us to take to address political change in our democracy. We can remember last week’s underlying call to learn to listen to the anger, we may or may not understand, from our places of relative privilege – if we have that privilege. We can also seek grounding rather than actions. We have to do both, but often we do neither. For that grounding, I’d like to turn to three thoughts from the writings of Julian of Norwich that come out of her book, “Revelations of Divine Love” that are particularly helpful right now. Julian was an English anchoress alive in the 14th and 15th century and largely regarded as one of the most important Christian mystics.
Speaking of God, Julian writes, “He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.” It’s hard to find joy in times of adversity. Julian is speaking to the very human tendency to focus on the tempests, travails and disease we all face from year to year. And sometimes those tempests are horrendous storms that we would wish on no one. The media is awash with death, and violence, war and torture. And in our personal lives we are faced with loss of loved ones, personal illness, exhaustion from caring for a beloved family member, or wrestling with depression. All of it is real, and serious, and full of grief. And still… the mystic teaches us that we were never promised not to be tempested or travailed – that is the hard truth of life; we were promised we wouldn’t be overcome.
For Julian, this is not so much – or not solely – about faith in God, but a sense of union with God. For her, and many mystics, belief washes away and is replaced with a sense of deep connection with the holy; the sense that there is no separation between humanity and the sacred. I imagine it’s a similar sense that may arise in deep practices of mindfulness meditation. A deep sense of belonging, and finding nourishment from that well. I have experienced it in my own meditation practice, and can attest that it is grounding in times of extreme crisis. Even if we don’t live in that state most of the time, the moments of it inform all the rest. We remember that promise Julian speaks of – we shall not be overcome.
From that promise we hear what is Julian’s most notable teaching, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Our choir sang an anthem earlier that adapts this message by putting it into conversation with the part of all of us that wrestles with deep pain and misery. Some of t lyrics of this song by the Rev. Meg Barnhouse read, “I said, “Julian, do you not know, do you not know about loneliness, and Julian, do you not know, do you not know about disease?” I said Julian, do you not know, do you not know about cruelty?” I said Julian, it’s too much. It brought me to my knees.” Basically, it’s all well and good to say things will be well, but I’m facing death, and loneliness in a world full of places of extreme cruelty — how can you say all will be well – you don’t know what loss really is. To which the song’s version of Julian replies, “No one does not know, does not know about loneliness and no one does not know, does not know about disease.” She said, “No one does not know, does not know about cruelty.” She said, “I know, it’s too much. It brought me to my knees where I heard:
‘All will be well, and all will be well, all manner of things will be well.’
Julian believed that God controlled and orchestrated all things. Personally, I think Julian was way off-base there, but it does point to a certain truth. Sometimes, it’s in the times of strife where we find ourselves. Sometimes, it’s the mundane parking lot needing to really, really flood before we’ll take the action that we’re now taking to repair it. Sometimes it takes facing the loss of a job, for us to wake up to our addiction to alcohol. Sometimes it’s about injury; I recall the months of physical therapy it took me to heal following being hit by a car as a pedestrian. I would never want to go through that again, but it taught me to be more patient with the people around me. I gained an empathy for people dealing with mobility issues that I didn’t have before. Facing the risk of death, helped me to be more present to the life around me. It also showed me how some people react to injury. I have never been bumped into so much in my life on a NYC subway as when I was walking with a leg brace and a crutch. I swear, people would go out of their way to knock into the knee with the brace on. I found myself having to sit with the crutch physically protecting my knee, and people would still find a way to walk into my leg.
Sometimes, a nation can persist in allowing a certain number of it’s citizens to be killed every year to ignore what lies below the surface, but at a certain point – the tragic is so glaring that authority and privilege can’t keep our conscious quiet any more. I would never wish the tragic on anyone, but occasionally being brought to our knees helps us to hear what needs to be heard. What we become in light of that voice matters.
How do we find our way back to joy? Julian, the mystic, tells us, “Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.” Like most great mystics, gender is fluid. When she speaks of our “Savior” she means Jesus as our Mother. Some of us will hear this as speaking to our relationship to God. Others will find its truth in mindfulness or reverence in being. I find both interpretations helpful.
A discipline of grounding ourselves in these ways is tied to permission giving. Sometimes, when things are really tough, we don’t allow ourselves to feel anything but the pain or the misery. For some of us, it’s too much to manage to find room for joy. For others of us, we’ve been socialized not to allow ourselves to find joy in times of hardship; as if finding something to appreciate in a time of loss is somehow wrong. Life is too complex, and too messy, not to leave room for the whole range of human experience in any moment. These grounding disciplines can carve out room for what our hearts need.
The metaphor she points to is both our unending opportunity to be born and reborn again in the holy. That when we come to the point where we’re on our knees, because whatever life has thrown our way is just too much to bear, we come to realize that we’ve never left our source. …Out of whom we shall never come. As the words of one of our hymns tell us, born and reborn again… In this moment, again and again. Despite the hardships of this world, which are many, and sometimes unbearable, we return to our choir anthem’s message reminding us of tenderness, of friends, of the Spirit… “it’s only love that never ends.” It’s only love that never ends. If we return to this, if we are grounded in this, we can find joy in times of hardship. In fact, the moments of joy will help to heal, or manage, all the rest. And in some cases, finding the joy, may be the only way to bear what is unbearable.