This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/29/17 as part of our All Souls Day service. It puts Reinhold Niebuhr in conversation with Pema Chodron reflecting on hope, hopelessness and peace.
Maybe the first tenet of preaching, or at least the most important, is to make sure folks come out hearing a message of hope. But today, this service commemorating All Souls, is different. Another year has gone by. A life full of hopes, and dreams – of losses and disappointments. Some the small everyday kind that we carry with us way beyond reason, and some tragic losses that impact us keenly and deeply, whose wounds will not go away for a very long time – if they ever truly leave us. Sometimes hope isn’t a virtue, but a merely wish for what can simply not be. All Souls is a day to honor and remember those we have lost; to remember the truth that death comes inevitably to all of us. We pray that we learn to enjoy the sweetness of life, of friendship, of community – for as long as we are given.
The Serenity Prayer – which the choir sung earlier – is a powerful reminder on days like today. We heard how the prayer begins – the part many of us know by heart. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Hope is sometimes the opposite of acceptance. It can get us through the day, and sometimes like faith, it changes our trajectory for the better. But before hardships that can not be affected, hope in changing them only brings more pain. There’s a peace in accepting what can not be changed – and moving from that place forward in our lives.
But the prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, goes on: “Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.” This extended part of the prayer speaks directly to a Neo-Orthodox Christian sense of the world. Niebuhr was a theologian speaking to a post-world War II world. Progressive Christianity was dominant in the States prior to the Second World War – known well as the Social Gospel movement. We’re seeing a way in which that movement is resurgent again through Moral Mondays and Rev. Dr. William Barber. But in the 1950s, progressive Christians couldn’t effectively articulate a theology of hope and grace in response to the horrors of the Holocaust. Theologians like Niebuhr, moved Christianity forward – centering sin as the focal point of human suffering. Skipping past the pain and suffering of the world – directly to hope – wasn’t going to be a lasting theology that gave meaning, understanding and a framework for spiritual living – in the face of such horrors that the 1940s brought.
This prayer’s bedrock though, is a spiritual discipline that transcends doctrine. Living one day at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; accepting this world as it is, not as I would have it. It didn’t mean that we don’t seek to change the world, where we are complicit in suffering – the prayer starts by telling us to change the things we can. But it does teach that true spiritual growth, the healing of our hearts, begins first with acceptance. Sometimes hope – gets in the way of acceptance.
There’s another, more contemporary, theologian who has been very powerful for me in times of grief. I quote Pema Chodron in sermons from time to time. She’s a Canadian Buddhist Nun, teacher and prolific writer. Her book, “When Things Fall Apart” found its way into my life at a time when I was ending a long-term relationship that I was sure was going to last, I was working a temporary job that I knew was ending in a few months, I was wracking up remarkable amounts of graduate student debt, and someone had just broken into the car I was borrowing (from a congregant) during my student ministry costing me close to a thousand dollars in repairs to windows and the dashboard in their effort to steal a $50 radio. It was far more money than I earned in any given month. Things were falling apart. If you’re in a place like that now, I recommend that book strongly.
But there’s a section in there I rarely talk about with folks. It’s a theology that’s very close to the edge of what would not preach well here. The chapter is called, “Abandon Hope.” Now – first off – don’t abandon hope. There are so many struggles in life that will pass. Everything I mentioned just a moment ago in the scheme of that time in my life where everything was falling apart – are just shadows and dreams now. Hope for the things that we can change – and the wisdom to know the difference – is vital.
But here’s an excerpt from her teachings that may help today. “As long as we’re addicted to hope, we feel that we can tone our experience down or liven it up or change it somehow, and we continue to suffer a lot. In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon Hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Everyday in every way, I’m getting better and better.” We hold onto hope and it robs us of the present moment. If hope and fear are two different sides of the same coin, so are hopelessness and confidence. If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation.”
…Insecurity and pain… We all face it. Sometimes we allow it to rule our lives over the small things. And sometimes the heart-crushing losses of our lives put them legitimately at the front and center of our spirit. I normally talk about the small every day hurts from the pulpit; but today on All Souls, we’re tentatively heading toward life’s greatest loss – our loved ones and ultimately – ourselves.
The Western world sometimes looks at Buddhist notions of enlightenment as some super human power to no longer feel insecurity and pain. Some New Age circles will paint enlightenment as the ability to magically be above all that. Pema Chodron is pointing toward a different truth. Insecurity and pain will never leave us – but we can come to relax in that groundlessness and find a deeper peace. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” It’s the point where Neo-Orthodox Christianity meets Buddhism. When I find those points, I try to attend the teaching very carefully – it’s probably speaking to a deep truth in life. Living one day at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; accepting this world as it is, not as I would have it.
Pema Chodron goes on to say, “Death can be explained as not only the endings in life but all of the things in life that we don’t want. Our marriage isn’t working; our job isn’t coming together. Death and hopelessness provide proper motivation for living an insightful, compassionate life. But most of the time warding off death is our biggest motivation. Warding off any sense of problem, trying to deny that change is a natural occurrence, that sand is slipping through our fingers. Time is passing and its as natural as the seasons changing. But getting old, sick, losing love – we don’t see those events as natural. We want to ward them off, no matter what.”
For some of us here today, grief and death are not close at hand. We may have suffered loss some time ago, but the sting is not as harsh so many years later. But you may be wrestling with saving or ending your marriage. Or work and career are just not panning out. When hopelessness stays turned inward, and it plays havoc with our minds, it’s a damaging thing. But experience of hopelessness, informing our outward actions, can make us more compassionate people. Faith – at its best – teaches us to treat others as we would have wanted to be treated when we too were at our lowest moment. And any one of us today could be at our lowest low – and we might even be moving around with the biggest smile on our face, even though our hearts are breaking. Remember that, when you come through our doors. Remember that, when you just want to rage at the people around you for not being nearly as perfect as you think you are. We want to strive to instill compassion in this often unforgiving world, but we can’t force compassion through ire, or rage, or petty acts that lift our egos above those around us. Change does occur – time is slipping by – we’re all aging everyday. We may hate that, but it’s natural. Warding off change, rarely makes us kinder to be around.
The crux of Pema Chodron’s teaching around the Abandon Hope magnet on our refrigerators is this: “When we talk about hopelessness and death, we’re talking about facing facts. No escapism. Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, not to run away, to return to the bare bones, no matter whats going on. If we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.” To our Western understanding, there’s a way in which this may sound callous. If your grief is recent, don’t take this to mean to rush to lose your grief. You may break yourself if try to. But when time has passed – there’s a point where we have to accept the things we can not change, if we’ll ever be able to find joy again.
Part of me wanted to call this week’s service, “Abandon Hope” but the optics would have been horrid, and I kind of wanted a few people to actually show up. So the sermon is entitled Living Past Fear – which is another way of saying the same thing. Giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment before us – in all it’s hardship, and in all the fear it stirs, deep in our bones – brings us into direct relationship with this precious life we have been given.