This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/6/16 for our annual All Souls day service.
I recently attended ten days of working conferences for religious professionals. One part of those conferences was primarily about having difficult conversations. How do we as leaders, how do we as religious people, have the difficult conversations around the big topics: money, race, death and sexuality. I was also asked to lead part of the workshops around race, identity and racism. Not surprisingly, the week started with the comparatively easy (I kid) topic of money, and (not surprisingly) saved sexuality for the last day.
One of the premises of the conference was that we needed to understand our frameworks around each of these topics if we’re to have the difficult conversations within our communities of faith. Where we start from, when we’re thinking about race or death, has as big (or even bigger) an impact than any set of facts or subset of knowledge on the topics. What’s our story about money or sexuality, and how do we tell it? One of the odd stand-outs for a very unusual conference for religious professionals, was realizing that if something happened to me, my husband would have a hard time figuring out where all of my investments, or retirement portfolios are, where my bank accounts are and so on. That’s something we’re working on fixing, but it taught me something about myself that I hadn’t quite realized: Part of me is still living, in some ways, a story of individuality.
Don’t get me wrong; almost everything that impacts our household goes through a rigorous schedule of fretting, and arguing – like any very happily married couple. But there are some habits of the single years, that I haven’t quite put to rest: shared documentation, shared calendars, and negotiating where we go for Thanksgiving and Christmas – all still trip us up – even after six years together. How do we start a shared google calendar – has become a near weekly refrain that despite all my tech savvy, I find extremely onerous. Individuality runs deep in our culture, and it’s a hard practice to unlearn – and I don’t think I’m alone here on this.
Another side of individuality is isolation. We all live in isolation at some time in our lives, even if we’re surrounded by people all the time. (And we don’t have to be alone to be in isolation.) It’s another story we tell ourselves: how alone are we…We can become most aware of it when we’re going through times of crisis – whether or not we have all the communal support we can ever dream of – how we relate to crisis can determine if we tell our story as individuals, or tell our story as part of something larger. Do we fight that struggle with cancer as lone warriors, or do we let ourselves lean on our friends and neighbors for moral support, even knowing still that we are the ones that have to go in for chemo? When our relationships wither, do we reach out, or do we hunker down? Having good friends and family – even when we have many of them – doesn’t necessarily mean we let them in when the road gets rough. Sometimes that might be the right choice – only you know that answer for yourself – but sometimes we think isolation is the best choice – even when it’s not.
I was listening to an interview with a comedian some of you may know, Patton Oswalt. He was being interviewed on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert earlier this week. He’s a man in his mid to late forties with a 7 year old daughter. Six months ago, his wife suddenly died in her sleep – there was no warning. She had been working very long hours and he finally convinced her to stay home and get some sleep; there was an accidental and very tragic dose of sleeping medication…. He’s been very public with his grief, and is only now getting back to work in comedy. Something he said about grief in the interview really struck me as true. “If you don’t talk about it, then grief really gets to setup and fortify its positions inside of you and begin to immobilize you. But the more you talk, the more you expose it to the air and to the light, then grief doesn’t get the chance to organize itself, and maybe you can move on better and easier…
…[grief] can’t be remedied, it must be endured – and it’s the endurance, oddly enough, that becomes the remedy.”
He goes on to talk about how he’s found that not only has talking about his grief with others helped him to move forward with his life as an individual and now as a widowed dad of a young child, but he’s learned that his sharing has helped others in extreme grief find avenues for healing. Speaking our stories has a healing power that can help us get back to living more fully after times of great loss.
This reminds me of the old folk saying about twigs. Take any twig you find and try to snap it. It’ll break pretty easily. Put that same twig into a bundle with other twigs, and it gets harder and harder to break. I think when we separate ourselves too long from one another, from community or friends, we can become like that singular twig. Life’s pressures can become too much; grief or loss can become too much – and we don’t have to do it alone.
Alone or together – the story we tell about our life changes us. British fiction author Terry Pratchett said, “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” All this month we are imagining what it means to be a people of story. Well, we are a people of story. Our services just about begin weekly with a story, and most of my sermons start by telling another type of story – basically parables of daily living. For us, we don’t have to imagine being a people of story as much as consciously realize how deeply stories impact our lives and our living.
What are the stories you come back to year after year? What stories do we raise our kids on, and why? Which stories defined your character, or pull on your heart strings, or get you in the gut when they resonate with what’s happening in your life? As Pratchett writes, people are shaped by stories – we should choose our stories wisely. And we should choose the stories we tell about our lives just as wisely. What negative story do you choose to try to convince yourself is true about you? I spoke about separation and isolation before, but there are many other stories we tell about ourselves that harm more than help.
A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine was sharing a story about their congregation on Facebook. (I have permission to share this here.) He wrote, “One thing that I never expected to be quite so good at – helping calm really little kids down who are missing their parents. I wonder if this sort of inherent knowledge came when I was hired as a DRE, or if it was there all along.” On one level, there’s a story we all tell about our capacity to be in the world; what we’re good at, what we’re bad at, and what our roles are in our lives. But on the spiritual level, his story reminded me about the central purpose of communities of faith – and I don’t say this flippantly.All religious life is essentially helping one another struggle through our separation anxiety: our sense of separation from the Holy, from God, from one another. In times of grief, we remember those who have died in our lives. In times of change, we hold one another’s hands to remember we’re not alone. In the every day, or maybe for you only a few times in your life, we struggle with whether there is meaning and depth to this world; whether we’re part of something greater. For some the answer is community, or compassion, or justice-building. For the more mystical among us, I believe we’re never truly alone – but despair sets in when we forget that truth. Religious life is helping one another through our struggle with separation and isolation, through grief and loss. And the other side of that struggle is a question of the spirit – and an answer that draws us back out – again and again.