This sermon looks at the twists and turns of life that give and challenge our purpose.
Rich began our service talking about finding purpose in unexpected places. We never really know where we’ll end up from every turn we take. I’m going to frame that quickly in my own way, and we’ll move forward from there in a new way. I was 19 when I found Unitarian Universalism. In some ways, I share the usual story for converts to our faith. In my case, I was a devout Catholic who had come to accept that there was no Hell, that God was loving, and that homosexuality was not a sin – but an expression of love. In other ways, my story was unusual. I found a UU Fellowship in northern NJ through a job. For a host of reasons, I had dropped out of college in my first year studying environmental science. After getting laid off from a part-time job at a chain bookstore right after Christmas, I got word that a church was looking for a custodian. Over the next three years, that job expanded into their events coordinator (think weddings and art shows.) I was still pushing the mop, I was coordinating weddings, and I was back in college – this time studying religion and anthropology. For those of you going through a tough time with school or work, try to remember that you never know how things will turn out. Some of the worst times of our lives, still find a way to end eventually, and there can be something new in store for any of us.
That course correct was 24 years ago this month. It sometimes amazes me that I’ve been working on staff, or as a lay leader, or a minister in our congregations for 24 years – over half my life. But before that change, I was miserable. The Autumn of my first semester in college was the worst 3 months of my life. Significant health issues – I was almost hospitalized. The super high pressure we put on our teens to excel in High School and pick their direction in life before their brains are done growing, all felt moot when the new hand was dealt. It was a time that felt like there simply were no options, no path, no possibility – and what was worse, was the sense that all the hard effort I had put into my plan, was simply wasted.
Losing purpose. When we feel like we’ve lost our purpose, we experience deep pain, depression – that malaise of the spirit that gnaws and lingers well beyond sense or control. Spiritual malaise is an impossible cycle that reinforces itself. Nothing worked, so nothing will work. How I defined my life, was wrong, so I have no life to define. This is painful and hard, so life will continue to be painful and hard. I don’t understand how this all fits together, so nothing fits together.
It’s a real life experience, that seems to me, to make sense of why we tell stories of demons and devils. It teaches us to forget who we are. We conflate worldly events with personal worth – our personal value as people. We confuse our ego with our spirit. We become possessed – if we were to speak poetically about the pain that is very real. And stories of devils and demons, circle around the power of names and naming. We trade our name with that deep despair, and forget ourselves. Suffering is real. I don’t try to diminish that truth. And it need not define us, even if it’s drawing circles around our lives.
My big life course correct taught me something about depression, purpose and especially meaning. Sometimes we find meaning, sometimes we make it. (Now I’m about to utter another UU heresy, so please hold onto your seats.) There’s a silly Western philosophical conceit around existential purpose that I’ve come to loath. Somewhere along the way, with all our glorious scientific progress, we’ve conflated intellectual rigor and facts, with ontological meaning. Ontological is a big word meaning – the study of the nature of being. Even if we wouldn’t say it out loud, internally we sometimes conflate the idea that putting life under a microscope is a viable way to perceive, dissect, or reveal the atoms of our meaning and purpose. I think it’s bad religion – and a bit dangerous – when we try to answer the questions of How that science is a well-proven tool. And it’s bad science, when it tries to clarify the big question of why.
Terry Pratchett, a beloved British author and satirist, wrote in “A Hat Full of Sky,” “There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.” Malaise sets in when we dissect every wrong turn through the microscopes of our egos. Suffering – rather than remaining a well known fact of life – becomes evidence for purposeless. It’s a story; a story we tell ourselves. We could always choose to tell another story. After all, we’re choosing to tell the painful stories – sometimes dwelling is more a choice than we like to admit.
We need not look far to find another story. The whole of Buddhist practice centers on that other story. All life is suffering…. And we dedicate ourselves to reducing the suffering of others. It’s another way of looking at the same thing. Why do we choose one way or the other to look at the places where pain pushes against purpose? One view exacerbates the harm, one way leads to newness. Now I know, this isn’t always a switch we can just flip to find our way past malaise; the brain and the heart aren’t gears and cogs we can turn and twist on demand. But as someone who, like most of us, have found ourselves in those impossible places of the spirit, I need to point out that it doesn’t need to stay that way. Keep on.
Story is a form of art. In many ways, it’s my line of work now. We story our lives, to craft something that brings beauty and meaning into our communities; that heals lives, that focuses our intentions, that leaves lasting good. Stella Adler (an actress and teacher) once said, “Life beats down and crushes the soul …and art reminds you that you have one.” Story can be the art of purpose. The sun coming up every day is a story… change the story, change the world.”
Earlier we heard a piano version of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide. I’m not sure I can think of another song more emblematic for me of the poignancy, and pain, of the big twists and turns in life. “Stevie Nicks once explained that the real meaning of “Landslide” goes back to 1974, before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac, the now-legendary singer says, she was at the end of her rope. Money was tight, doubts about making a successful record lingered, and, as a result, the couple’s relationship was strained.” It’s hard to imagine such an iconic talent being at the end of her professional rope. And yet, most of us have been, or will be at some point in our lives. Suffering is real, and it is a part of life. How we tell it’s story though, can be different. Do we stay in 1974 with the musician’s pain, or do we move ahead to see a life of art and influence?
“And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills. ‘Til the landslide brought it down…. Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’ ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you. But time makes you bolder. Even children get older And I’m getting older, too. Oh, I’m getting older, too.”
…Cause I’ve built my life around you… what have you built your life around? If that changed in a blink, where would you find your grounding? Landslides of the spirit come sudden and unbidden for all of us. The matters we’ve built our lives around lend us purpose, but they are not necessarily our sole purpose, and they certainly aren’t inherent to our self worth. Our first principles reminds us of our inherent worth. Our worth is not tied up in our doing, though our doings do matter. Our worth comes first, and from that worth, we choose how to live into the world.
I’ll close with words from Arthur Graham: “Each of us is an artist whose task it is to shape life into some semblance of the pattern we dream about. The molding is not of self alone, but of shared tomorrows and times we shall never see. So let us be about our task. The materials are very precious and perishable.”