This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/24/17 as part of our annual Rosh Hashanah service. It reflects on the nature of life, of risk, loss and the power of meditation.
Return again, return to the land of your soul, return to what you are, return to who you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again. These words from our hymn, are music and lyrics written by Schlomo Carlebach, or as Reb Shlomo to his followers. He was a Jewish rabbi, religious teacher, composer, and singer who was known as “The Singing Rabbi” during his lifetime. He died in 1994. It’s a hymn that feels like it’s been around for centuries, but it’s a thoroughly 20th century creation.
This past month, as we’ve been reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of welcome: How do we welcome the stranger; how do we welcome back our own selves when we’ve been our own worst critic. I’ve found myself speaking again and again about the amorphous nature of time – how it stretches and shrinks – affecting our memory, rewriting pains and sorrows, or keeping joys distant. Today, we’ll look deeper into welcoming the moment before us – that returns again and again – in joy and in pain.
Happy Rosh Hashanah all. Shana Tova! A good and sweet year to us all. In the Jewish calendar, we begin a new year; returning once again to a time of reflection, a time of atonement, a time of seeking out those we have wronged, and seeking to make amends, face to face. It’s a ritual that we return to year after year. This coming Friday night, we’ll hold our annual Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur. It’s a somber service of reflection, discernment, and atonement. Join us at 7:30pm to meditate on the closing end of these sacred days.
Sacred ritual has a power to it that transcends human generations. I marvel at the rituals we have been enacting millennia after millennia. That which the human community does in concert, again and again, takes on a sense of eternity. It seeks to encounter the moment between the moments that the poet T.S. Eliot famously penned. The world will continue its spin, our days and lives will grow long and short, from coffee spoon to coffee spoon, but these moments of ritual, punctuate the routine. The rote becomes pierced, and one moment stands outs, amongst all the rest. When I hear the shofar be blown each year, it quickens my spirit. Time seems to shorten and stretch, to pause before eternity, knowing it will pass in a breath or two. We can return to this still point, again and again, but we can’t linger. It’s ever before us, but never any less urgent.
The poet’s (T.S. Eliot) beauty describing these still points in the turning world, reflect the opposite side of the pain of loss, or risk. Earlier in the service, we heard Harriet’s reflection on surviving a month in a coma, now twenty years later. I found her message of attending to the breaths that come unbidden in times of urgency – so moving. When the moments of risk or pain, literally take our breath away, they are calling us back to attend to what’s before us – while we still can. It’s not time to think, or to worry, or to fret, but to act with intention – as best we can. How many breaths go by, unnoticed? When they are noticed, our world changes.
Our shared intentions, that lead to a common impact, matter. When we come together this next Friday to honor the end of the Days of Awe, we enter again into a common human stream, a common human story; that is ageless. Maybe it’s a bit of magical thinking, but I think it’s a kind of magical thinking that’s quite true, in the mythic sense of truth. These rituals, in changing form, have repeated and been adapted for at least 3400 years – maybe 170 generations have atoned, have fasted, each in their own way – but along a common thread. There’s a power in living into that universal story. Culture and identity give us strength. Common purpose, and common ground, create a foundation civilization thrives in. It also builds a foundation that the human heart can return to for solace, when we lose our breaths, again and again. Having a place; adding to a shared story, makes acting in unison purpose all the more stirring and all the more possible.
When we were planning this service, Harriet and I spoke about the power of meditation in these troubling times – before the times of struggle come. In years past, I committed to a group meditation practice led by a Korean Buddhist Zen Nun. These days, with my schedule all over the map, I maintain my own personal practice of meditation. If you’re interested in joining our Fellowship’s groups, there’s a Tuesday morning and Friday morning group that meets weekly here. (Any members of those group willing to raise your hands…). When I endured my own near brush with death – a fraction of what Harriet endured in her earlier sharing – being hit by a car – the doctor told me that I was quite lucky. My body decided, on its own, to remain relaxed, as I was hit and thrown ten or fifteen feet. If I had tensed up, she said, the injury would have been far worse. We often talk about meditation’s benefits in the spiritual sense, and sometimes around it’s healing of daily stresses. But it also teaches our body, our muscle memory so to speak, to internalize the lesson of this too shall pass.
I have no super human powers. I’m still terrified of looking over the railings in malls that have a second floor, I still won’t fearlessly swim far out into the ocean, and no amount of money will ever get me near power tools. And even as I was writing this sermon, my husband was having a rare day working from home, as his office is moving to a new location. As I was writing about this very idea of those moments of shock and awe, that take our breath away, he was over and over, walking into my writing space quietly and then (completely unaware) loudly asking a question of me. Each time – I’d gasp and startle. So no, no superhuman powers.
When I was hit by a fast moving car, I didn’t will myself to relax; I just intuitively returned to that place that meditation opened me to. It welcomed me home, without struggle, or fight – through no fault or effort of my own. And that intuitive return, again and again, found in meditation, may have literally saved my life. If meditation doesn’t speak to you, give it another shot, again and again. It has a lasting impact, that’s not quite quantifiable, yet still eternal.
Return again, return to the land of your soul, return to what you are, return to who you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again. In the spirit of these days of awe this service is more contemplative, more musical, and maybe a bit less word-driven that usual. We’ll close with one more song, this time a somewhat familiar one – hopefully by now – that’ll we sing in simple repitition as a chant for a bit longer than we usually do. As we come to the close of our service, it’s our hope that this chant can be another way for you to enter into the spirit of meditation. Return to the still point, again and again.