Archive for October, 2018
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/28/18 for our annual All Souls service. It reflects on our theological response to the refugee caravan traveling north from Honduras, and the threats against Transgender folk in the US.
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.
Telling our stories is a powerful form of ministry with one another. And the stories we tell matter. It’s one of the reasons at our memorial services, we put such a focus on the community sharing their memories of the deceased. Their legacy and their love continue on in the impacts they made while they were alive. Storytelling is honoring that life. Even the painful stories are important to share; there is a healing in the telling, and there is an ethical component as well. Sharing our struggle is a way to foster compassion, and compassion builds community. In traditional Universalist theology, all souls are saved. And on this day, we remember who came before, but we also remember that we are part of that beloved community of all souls; that allsouls are part of our community.
Remembering this fundamental sanctity of life; that our theology affirms the inherent worth of people, I’m going to tell three short stories about our world today. I’ll ask you to keep in mind this essential theology of Universalism affirming all souls. Before I begin though, I offer these words from Joanna Macy as a frame (she’s is an environmental activist, author, and a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology.) “Thus do we realize ever again that the simple eloquenceof telling the truth liberates us to find insight,solidarity, and courage to act, despite rapidly-worseningconditions. When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us. Many of us fear that confrontation with despair will bring loneliness and isolation, but—on the contrary—in the letting go of old defenses, truer community is found. In the synergy of sharing comes power. In community, we learn to trust our inner responses to our world—and find our power.”
My first story. All Souls, and this time of year is associated with Hurricane Sandy for me. This part of the world was hit rather hard. Some of us in our Fellowship lost their home. Neighborhoods in the wider area were destroyed. The recovery took well over 2 years in some parts. I remember at the time, I was living in Manhattan, in Stuyvesant Town. They were 12 story towers for middle income folk, stretching for at least 6 city blocks, and 4 avenues. The week of Sandy, had been both emotionally exhausting and incredibly fortunate for my home. Being in what NYC called zone B, we were not asked to evacuate ahead of time, so we hunkered down, stored up supplies, froze extra water in zip lock bags just in case, and prepared for a night of computer games and a good book.
We lived two blocks from the Con Edison station that had a transformer blow. I personally missed the great flash of white light that lit the sky – I was busy staring at my computer shutting down.
The East River, typically 2.5 avenues away (or the one half mile from our front door) in Stuyvesant Town where we lived, became our neighbor for a night and part of a morning. It landed on a Monday. Although the East River receded by the next day, the streets were wet through that Thursday. The power was out, hot water was gone, and running water came and went for up to twelve hours at a time. Some of our neighbors were out of gas, but we were fortunate. Our building did not suffer that level of damage. The next one over did.
Over the next few days, we would climb down the ten flights of stairs with our flashlights to grab some bread from bodegas that were getting rid of the last of their supplies before they went bad – and we were very grateful that no one was price gouging their goods. More food wasn’t coming in yet.
Many eight story stall trees were dead on the grown. Twelve foot lengths of pier, giant rivets and all, were as far in as Ave C – leaving wreckage to the cars they rested upon, amidst other cars literally tossed about by the East River.
Traffic in Manhattan, usually a bitter affair, was pedestrian friendly, almost devoid of any honking horns, and civil in a way I could never imagine.
In our community, neighbors and resident staff were taking turns visiting each of the 30,000+ homes without power to make sure folks were alright. Letters were circulated asking us to check on our neighbors who were elders – who had no hope of climbing down, let along up, ten flights of stairs. We were a community of all souls that week.
One café brought out a generator to the street, and set up a power strip so that strangers could recharge their cell phones and laptops. This may seem small, but when you have no ability to tell anyone that you’re fine – this was a great act of charity and relief. For those that follow me on social media, you know how prolific I am. When we finally had access to power and a signal, my Facebook wall was inundated with friends, congregants and colleagues asking if we were alright; folks knew how close we were to the worst, and not everyone lived through that Hurricane. In the US alone, 106 people died. When we finally had cell coverage again on Wednesday, I was heartened to hear of the stories of outreach and support organized by the congregation in Brooklyn I was serving at the time. I know our own Fellowship here made sure to take care of one another as well. I felt cared for knowing others were taking care of one another, even though I couldn’t be reached yet.
We finally did evacuate on Thursday to the magical land of “Park Slope” which was high, dry and heavily caffeinated. We felt very blessed. We are were lucky to be able to return home by Sunday afternoon.
That hurricane was serious, destroying so much; though in comparison, we were fine. And I still remember it this time of year, every year. And for those among us who lost our homes, it’s left an indelible imprint upon our psyche. The act of the community coming together to support those in extreme crisis, is the spiritual and human response to tragedy. It’s healthy; it’s normal; and it defines civilization. That is what we should do; that is who we should be; and that should be our marker for decency. As Joanna Macy said, “When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us.”
If that one storm was so significant, that congregations around this area would remember in our pastoral prayers or our sermons, annually going on five and six years now, let’s extend that truth to even more serious moments of crisis and tragedy. What level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to that which is worse?
Here is my second story. It’s about the refugee caravan heading north from Honduras; a caravan also of all souls. Again I ask, what level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to that which is worse? Just this week, our UU Service Committee “in partnership with SHARE El Salvador and in collaboration with the Sisters of Mercy, participated in a delegation to Honduras to bear witness to social and political dynamics that have contributed to civil unrest within Honduras as well as a mass exodus of civilians from the country. This delegation heard numerous testimonies of government abuse and greed, torture, human rights violations, rape, forced displacement, and the dehumanization of large groups of people.”If you want to learn more about the causes, and what can be done, you can head to our Facebook page, or directly to UUSC.org for the full report and actions that can be done.
There’s far too much political rhetoric being irresponsibly thrown around – particularly the lie that there are terrorists and gang members amidst the refugees. It’s another racist dog whistle, plain and simple. All reporting, on the ground, indicates this is a blatant lie. The Washington Post had an article the other day detailing what Mexicans are doing as the refugees travel north. It reminded me of how New Yorkers came together after the Hurricane. “The 30-year-old Honduran corn farmer and dogged sojourner in the migrant caravan was dressed head-to-toe in donated clothes. His 3-year-old son, Alexander, played with donated toys. And the rest of the family — his wife, his two brothers and a cousin — sat on the sidewalk eating beef stew and tortillas ladled out for them by residents of this bustling market town in Mexico’s southern Chiapas state. “These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.”
“These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.” To me, that’s the basic level of compassion one should at least extend people fleeing from “government abuse and greed, torture, human rights violations, rape, forced displacement, and the dehumanization of large groups of people.” That’s the basic level; not play pretend they are actually terrorists. And both US law and International law are clear – refugees can seek asylum at our borders. These are refugees; they are doing nothing illegal.
It is a malicious theology that seeks to carve up the beloved community of all souls – between us and them, with the “us” forever shrinking and shrinking till it looks more like “me” than any “us” that ever were. “When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us.” (Joanna Macy.)
“These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.”I want to turn toward some words my colleague, Rev Jake Morrill recently blogged. Here they are: “Years ago, the literary theorist Elaine Scarry wrote a book called “On Beauty and Being Just.” She says beauty is that which awakens in us a longing for creation and fulfillment. She says that, when we fall in love with beauty, we want to share it. And—whether it’s a painting or a person or a culture or a region of land—when we fall in love with it, we want to defend it. She says we’ll fight to preserve it. And what we seek, in the name of beauty, is justice.
A friend of mine says that the central task of these times of de-humanization is for us to engage in “re-humanization.” Which may be another way to say that we need to see and hear one another—our stories, our wounds, our quirks, our confessions—and even fall in love a little with one another. And, while we’re at it, to come back to ourselves.
I don’t know the exact strategies that will fix the big problems we face, or heal the wounds. But I think faith communities and other artistic communities can be about falling in love again with each other and with the earth, bearing witness to beauty even in the wreckage, and taking up the discipline of re-humanization.
If our hearts got stirred up like that, if we let beauty tug us out of our stupor, we could be moved to fight for what we love. Tenaciously and tenderly. Like something precious might, even at the last hour, have a chance of being saved.”
Thank you Rev. Morrill for that gorgeous re-centering during these difficult times. Falling in love with one another, loving the beauty in one another, and bearing witness to the other. Being seen for who we are, as we are, is the next step in learning to love one another enough to defend and protect and nurture our neighbor, whether it’s a storm of the natural world, or a storm of the political world – we can respond with beauty to lift us all up.
I’ll come to a close with my third story. This week we learned that the President is seeking to change the definitions of gender, to remove it as a protected legal status as a linguistic gambit to erase Transgender and Non-Binary people from sight. You can well and easily imagine the repercussions to rights, and to safety that will come of this deeply cynical move. Calls to the National Transgender Hotline doubled this week in light of this news. It’s another way to carve out who gets seen in the caravan of all souls, and our faith teaches us otherwise. The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines gender identity as “a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female.” That’s not complicated to express or really to understand. And there are many people that need us to understand; to see them as they are, and to learn to love their beauty enough that we care to defend them and nurture them. In the end, this cynical move sounds to me like another way that our current administration has something in common with Honduras, namely, “the dehumanization of large groups of people.” What level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to the dehumanization of large groups of people? What stories will we learn to hear? What lives will we hold close to our hearts to live on in us; carrying their humanity unto our humanity? Dehumanization leads to pipe bombs being sent to your political opponents and journalists; dehumanization leads to gunman storming our synagogues on shabbat.
The author Neil Gaiman says that, “A book is a dream in your hands.” Well, a book, or the stories of our lives, held in beauty in our hands, are each the dreams of another life and that is a holy thing to hold. May we hold one another, our dreams, and our suffering, religiously in care.
Rev. Jake Morrill
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/21/18 and looks at the perversion of the Christian message in contemporary America.
When I was in seminary, I lived next door to Riverside Church, the great Protestant Catherdral of America. It was on the corner of Columbia University and Harlem. One year, the Dalai Lama was touring the US and was stopping to speak at Riverside church. Many of us seminarians were invited into the worship service. For weeks we prepped art supplies for this gorgeous service. The Dalai Lama was preaching on interfaith solidarity and compassion. And we were crafting the large and long giant fishes – in designs and styles from every world religion. For you see, the fish is an image that is almost universally sacred to every world faith in some way. The service began with drumming, and dozens and dozens of us marching in with those giant fish on long poles with streamers behind – swimming into and through the giant catherdal. Ritually, we were trying to describe that that which is universal in faith, is essential to faith. What we all have in common, is what is central to the spirit. That which is universal is essential.Remember that image, and we’ll come back to it soon.
“And the people bowed and prayed. To the neon god they made. And the sign flashed out its warning. In the words that it was forming. And the sign said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls. And tenement halls.” (Paul Simon)
I’m a child of the 70’s and 80’s. Neon was synonymous with excitement; it was also a good stand-in for vice, excess, danger. Sometimes it meant greed. I remember the first time I went to Las Vegas for a work conference, back when I was still in Info Tech, there was a point when I was strolling around that I had to leave one of the major street intersections; the neon and flashing lights were so much more extreme than even Times Square, my vision couldn’t handle all the dazzle, and I was worried I was going to pass out. Now that Times Square is all giant LED screens, I’m not sure if the generations after me will see “Neon” that way. It might just come across as “cheap,” in the sense of the cheaper alternative to LED. But for “The Sound of Silence” and Simon and Garfunkle, and for this kid of the 70s and 80s, the man-made gods were Neon.
“The Sound of Silence” is the modern retelling of the Golden Calf story; where gold was melted into a false god that was worshipped. The commandments were tossed aside, And the people bowed and prayed… The oldest stories are new again, and again. And the prophets of old, and the prophets of today, are found in the margins, among the underserved; the carpenters, the orphans, the graffiti artists, and in public housing. They probably won’t have flashy signs drawing attention to them; the bright lights often are trying to dazzle us to look the other way – away from the prophets that are forging a new, and healthier path.
Religion is often divided, and despite all the interfaith work of recent decades, it continues to be a tremendous source for divisiveness. It’s that fact, that pushes so many spiritual people away from organized religion. Add to that, the very reality of golden calves, and neon gods, there is a real threat we need to come to account with, and figure out how to manage – as religious people. I’ll begin with my own home, and move out from there. Today we will look at the painful tension, or the disconnect between our expressed values, and how our national religious and civic actions often play out. The mixed messages between what we say and what we do; what we believe and how we practice.
My household is essentially an interfaith one. I identify strongly as a U.U., and a theist, who’s rooted in the narrative traditions of Judaism and Christianity. I have my own meditation practice informed by Buddhist teachers over the years, but it’s the stories in the Bible that I grew up on, that really hit home for me when they’re unpacked in meaningful ways. My husband, left what he experienced as a too homophobic fundamentalist Christian worldview and has found a rich spiritual home in Neo-Paganism. (His family, thankfully, is super loving and great people – and often read my sermons – so if you’re reading this – love you Diane)!
But Christianity doesn’t still speak to my husband. It’s safe to say that we’re coming from a different place when we talk about the value of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. He legitimately sees the bad, and the stark, and has had enough. And I see all that stuff too, and I react differently; I say that’s not real Christianity. Social conservatism doesn’t get to rewrite millennia of Christian teachings because they don’t align with today’s American cultural Christianity. I’ll remind us again, that Fundamentalism as we know it has only been around since the 1950s, and didn’t really gain serious traction until the 1970s. …Neon gods….
“And in the naked light I saw. Ten thousand people, maybe more. People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening. People writing songs that voices never share. And no one dared. Disturb the sound of silence.”(Paul Simon)
I want to look back to the beginning of Christian teachings, and we’ll move our way forward to the events of this past week; I’m especially horrified over the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government. Aside from the nightmare, that is our current administration’s unwillingness to do anything about an American Permenant Resident, and a journalist with the Washington Post, being murdered on foreign soil, we have also heard from Christian evangelists doubling now as murder apologists. Pat Robertson, the prominent televangelist, to paraphrase, ‘said that it wasn’t worth jeopardizing our alliance with Saudi Arabia over one life; it wasn’t worth billions of dollars, over one life.’ If you haven’t read about the details, I will not traumatize anyone now. And all the pundits are busy talking without speaking, as they try to spin this other than what it clearly is. I’ll leave it to you to read more about it if you so feel called. But today, we’ll try to sort out how we’ve gotten to the point where such a perverse perspective could be considered Christian. And maybe along the way, for those of us who are scarred by false religiosity, we might find a way back to reclaiming religion for ourselves. I’m increasingly believing that religious people have this internal work to do. For many of us, we’ve allowed American cultural Christianity to be understood as realChristianity. American cultural Christianity is a neon god; that’s all, and that’s dangerous.
It is in this spirit that I’d like us to consider the basics of the teachings of Jesus right now. Whether you see Jesus as God, or a prophet or a teacher – his wisdom has crafted this world we inhabit – and that wisdom is what I’m speaking to right now. His words often get lost behind denominationalism, politics, culture and doctrine. I deeply value his parables. Stories are a beautiful way to convey a teaching without sounding like you’re teaching. But they can leave a lot of room for interpretation. So let’s focus on the five very clear messages he gave that were not coached in parable, or metaphor, or narrative. Here they go and they’re easy to remember: feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; and shelter the homeless. As Unitarian Universalists, this teaching is central to our history of social service and social reform – it would be good to write those words on our hearts.
Very little of what Jesus ever said wasn’t cloaked in some varied meaning, so it seems to me that when he says something clearly, it’s probably extra-important. But its clarity should be seen as central to Christian practice and identity. Whatever speaks directly to its opposite is leading us toward neon gods.
The liberal and progressive wings of religion in America seem to have given ground to radical, right wing, extreme American cultural Christianity and convinced itself that those on the fringe are actually the center and those of us who maintain that compassion is central to religion are the crazy radicals. It’s simply not true. What I call the basic Christian spirit, or the basic religious spirit, they would call class warfare. And we remember, That which is universal is essential.Every world faith shares those five basic teachings of Jesus; that which is essential can notbe called class warfare.
So where does that leave us? How do we move on from here?
Religiously speaking – social transformation needs to begin from a place of compassion. We need to be centered in our lives, in our selves, in our motivations. We need to find the truth in those simple teachings of Jesus I began with. Teachings that are foundational to Christianity, birthed and rooted in Judaism, and remarkably found in all world faiths. Caring for the poor or naked is not a specifically Christian message. It’s a religious message. It’s a compassionate message. And to make it a reality, a spiritual mindset must be found – that community should transcend ego. That we are better together, than apart. That the kingdom of heaven is found in our midst – and Jesus meant – inall our midst.Bowing to our ego, bowing to neon gods is easy. Compassion and conviction are hard. Let’s find a way to take the hard path.
Some of us may choose to join the marches and protests across the nation. Some of us may feel that the economic system as it is, is mostly ok. I know that for some of us the debate could take days, and for others the answer’s already a given. Speaking in religious terms though, our country produces enough goods to feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; shelter the homeless, and yes even visit those in prison. But we don’t. We’ve missed the mark. We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark. And as the…People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening… continue on, whole swaths of us are fed false teachings of scarcity, of fearing the stranger, of hating our neighbor. We can do better; we are graced with the original blessing of life, and that is magnificant. We can be magnificent to one another. It is our work, all our work, to undo the false teachings of scarcity, of fear, of hate. That’s the religious call. Shatter the golden calf, turn toward the graffiti artists, and tenement halls, and hear the needs of the people, all the people.
We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark, and yet we don’t. I have no magic wand that will remedy this. I have no ear of presidents, or prophets to resolve this. But I do have your ear, and we do have each other. As the powers and principalities would see us unnervered, distraught, in despair, and disorganized – I challenge each of us to tackle just one of these five issues for a start. Between all of us, we’ll probably cover all of them in some way. What kind of clothing work do we do? Some of us donate to shelters. I know we collect bags and bags of clothes every year – for veteran’s groups, for our Men’s Shelter as we learn of needs. Can we institutionalize this outside of the cold weather months? I’ve asked this before, and I’ll ask us again, would one of us be willing to step forward and help manage this the other 6 months a year?
Do we feed the hungry? We run a cold-weather shelter; and we collect food for the town pantry during the cold-weather months. And we grow vegetables during the warm weather months. This feels like a central part of our collective life here, and we should be proud of what we do. Who are our leaders in this work here – raise your hand. If you would like to learn more, seek them out in coffee hour. We are not powerless.
And we do shelter the homeless; our Fellowship was a leading force in building the Huntington response to the tragic death of one homeless man in the winter over 15 years ago. With the cold-weather months coming upon us, there are opportunities to still volunteer. Joan P. and Mary S. are leads in this effort and it does take all of us. If you are one of our monthly managers, raise your hand – If you would like to learn more, seek them out in coffee hour. We are not powerless.
You could imagine me saying the same for caring for the sick, or visiting those in prison. We have a vibrant Pastoral Care team that helps me in visiting those who are sick, and helping along the way. Will our pastoral care associates who are present please raise your hands. If you would like to learn more, seek them out in coffee hour. We are not powerless.
I personally would add an addendum to visiting those in prison – it would sound something like, “Reduce the need and reliance on prisons.” That would be a ministry true. I think where we most closely succeed here is our work starting the Rapid Response Network in this part of Long Island, where folks accompany detained immigrants going to court; to strive to witness what they face, and to help honor their humanity during a difficult time in their life – a time that our nation makes unnecessarily difficult. If you would like to join in that work – reach out to our Social Justice committee, and they can connect you. Who here is involved with the Rapid Response Network, please raise your hands. If you would like to learn more, seek them out in coffee hour. We are not powerless.
These five basic teachings of Jesus are at risk in the modern US, and we can be of help. We each have to make our own value-based decisions in life. In the push and pull of the mixed messages of consumerism versus spirituality, we get to choose to what we will bow our heads and pray. And in these days of increasing bends toward the harsh realities of fascism, do not allow yourself to succumb to feeling powerless. Remember that that which is universal is essential.Stay true to the common sense spiritual teachings we all know to be true. Do not believe the lie that compassion is on the fringe, and fear and scarcity are in the center. Progressive faith, diverse faith, compassionate faith, is essential and true. Let us diligently lead by relentlessly fostering the ties and connections we can that are before us, and find strength, and find power, in that solidarity.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/7/18. It responds to the pain around this week’s news, especially in relation to the Supreme Court hearings, and sexual violence.
For those of you who follow me on social media, you already know that I was contemplating replacing this week’s message with 20 minutes of yelling the rage I’ve felt from this week’s news. As disappointing as that may be for some of us, (me not actually doing that,) I know it would just scare our babies, and the last thing this world needs is another angry white man making loud noises.
But I do have a ministerial responsibility here; wehave an institutional responsibility here – in the face of the psychic harm so many of us who have endured sexual violence – those who have endured, were forced to manage all over again these past two weeks. There are many calls to action that are easy to find, but today, I’m going to try my best to help us form a stronger grounding in our faithful tradition. To sort out where we come from, and to nourish the parts of us that need to find our center again. And for those that are called to act, that we offer some food for the work ahead, and our broken hearts.
The direction of this sermon will be different than originally posted, but we can’t ignore the world around us. And we will still find our way to the posted metaphor of Growth Rings.
I want to begin with Jewish Scripture, 1 Kings 19:11-12. The prophet Elijah has fled out to the wilderness. The people have broken their covenant, the other prophets have been put to the sword. And then the prophet Elijah hears the Word of the Lord. I grew up reading this not as a booming voice, but that small still voice. “11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;
12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”The section goes on to hear the Lord’s message to Elijah to anoint new leadership. From the silence, that still small voice, there came the new beginnings that would change the fate of Elijah’s people.
Think about Elijah’s mental state right there. He’s seen his people break their promises; kill his friends and fellow spiritual and ethical leaders and he comes to the place of God – and witnesses a tremendous wind that could ruin mountains – but God was not in the destructive winds. Then an earthquake, but God was not found in that threat of ruin. And if this chaos was not enough, a fire, but God was not the fire.
When we witness week’s like this week; week’s where there is moral failure in our leaders, when truth is put to the sword, and our government agencies are wielded like fire, and quakes, and institution shaking winds – we need to remember – in week’s like this, that God (and conscience), is not in these destructive forces, but in the sheer silencethat fills the aftermath. From that moment of silence, comes the still small voice that calls us to action. Our collective conscience can not be heard while the whirlwind drones on, but we must center ourselves in that conscience.
And for those in our room today, who are survivors of sexual assault, be especially gentle with yourselves right now. We know the whirlwind in our government is retraumatizing. But know that God is not in that whirlwind. God is not in that whirlwind. As helpless as we sometimes feel in the face of it all, scriptures tells us that after we witness the whirlwind, the voice that speaks from the silence shows us the way to anoint a new world and new leadership. This isn’t an empty hope, but a bedrock for sustenance when all seems turned upside down.
This week will leave its mark…. You know how trees have those growth rings showing their age. Those rings also are a map for what happened in the world around them. The rings show the impacts of drought, or fire, or insect plagues, and so on. The stories we tell, or not tell; the inner places of our hearts and minds, are our human sort of growth rings. The raw places of our spirits, show the markers of another kind of cultural drought or plague. If we were to look at a cross section of our spirit, we could map out the world around us. As Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” As a new growth ring forms in our lives, we do not yet know how we’ll understand it a generation later, even if it seems like all we could focus on in our world at the time. That map can only be understood backwards, not forwards….
Earlier this week I got asked, “what’s my plan.” The “plan” in the big sense of life. And I thought for a few seconds and basically said, “I don’t really do plans anymore; they just tempt life to laugh at me.” Do you remember when you last had a plan? Do you still make them?
This morning’s story focused on the parable of the terrified squirrel; a squirrel with a plan. The plan would address all the fears and horrors of the world, should he ever be forced to actually face them. Silly things like green martians and sharks in the woods, to falling out of a tree. Falling out of the tree can be a very serious risk, especially if my dog is sitting under the tree when the squirrel falls. That would be serious enough to leave a new metaphorical growth ring on that squirrel’s psyche. (For what it’s worth, that fear seems to be a weekly occurrence in my backyard. So not all of Scaredy Squirrel’s fears were unfounded.)
Now that cute kids’ story, was about how our best laid plans don’t always work. But it was also about not living one’s life forward. When the Unknown is a threat to avoid, we hunker down into our singular trees. And when he moved into the unknown, he learned something new about who he was and what he could do.
Do you remember when you last had a plan? Do you still make them? Maybe where life deviated from our best laid plans, we can see those markers in our spiritual growth rings, when we look back, even if we can’t understand it at the time. I find that spiritually sustaining in times of chaos. Get a good night’s rest, stay hydrated, in times of chaos, and know that even if the thing will still be horrible in the morning, we may understand it differently down the line. Maybe the horrible thing, like in the silly kids’ story, will teach us that we’re able to fly after all. I know I’ve had that lesson in life, more than one time. Or in the case of the Prophet, knowing that God was not found in the destructive forces before him, but in the witness, in his conscience, in the path forward. It doesn’t make anything that happened any less horrible, but we understand our story differently looking back; even as we live forward. And another growth ring is formed.
How did we get here? Where did we go right, and where did we go wrong? We all had plans; and maybe some of us still do.
…I think most of us recognize, most of the time, that there’s no real script, there’s no plan that will 100% survive the real world. We do our best and take one step at a time through the years. Life is a mixture of joy, and challenge, hope and grief. Some of us have it easier, and some of us have it harder, but none of us live without stress. That being said, I think most of us also fool ourselves into living like there is a script. It sounds different for each of us. Maybe yours is the standard american dream – graduate from school, get a job, find a spouse, have children, and own a home. It’s a good script to have. It only becomes a problem when we think we should follow it, but life doesn’t match it. Maybe school isn’t for you. Or these days, jobs change far more frequently than they used to. My dad retired after working at the same company for almost 50 years. That kind of security doesn’t really happen anymore. Each one of those events, when we look back, is another marker of where we’ve been, and who we become. They never leave us, even if we’re a new person along the way.
I love Joan Didion’s words from our reading earlier, especially one part that stood out for me: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be…”. Some of our earliest Unitarian theology, by the minister William Ellery Channing, in the early 1800s, spoke of a salvation by character.He had the notion that it was our primary work to develop and nurture our character throughout our life; that God’s salvation would be found through that work. And that society would benefit from that personal progress. It was still a communal outcome that he sought, but he would translate the Puritan work ethic into a theological spiritual formation of the individual.
I put Channing and Didion’s words into conversation with one another intentionally. She is reminding us that despite however much we may believe the person we are today – our pains, our joys, our annoying habits – is the person we actually are, she is reminding us that in a generation or two, we won’t even recognize that person we are so very attached to today. If Channing’s call is of worth, that formation of character is a saving grace, then Didion’s very practical human wisdom, is drawing a clear picture for us. Our hearts, our minds, our egos, our spirits – they all change and form and grow and recess, over time. For most of us, if we allow ourselves to be in formation, we won’t be the same people we once were. Hopefully, that’s for the better. Like Joan Didion said, I know I was a very annoying 19 year old – and I was sure of who I thought I was back then. As another growth ring, and another form, our spirits form more fully, along with our character – even and especially if we no longer recognize who we once were.
I gave two common plans earlier. But maybe you’re not looking to get married, or to get married again. Or children aren’t in your future for social, biological, or economic reasons. When family doesn’t look like the way we were raised to imagine it, it can be the source of great pain. I know that grief is real and legitimate; it’s good to acknowledge it if it’s a source of pain for you. But I find for myself, that I have to check where is the real sense of loss for me, and where I’m feeling loss from not following that imaginary script. We all deviate from it, but we don’t all have to feel bad when we do.
Or maybe you’ve lived that script and enjoyed the fullness of it, and are now wondering, what next? What does retirement mean for me? Do I become less busy, or more? When I move to be closer to the grandkids, what will become of my long time friends that have meant so much to me? I think this is the hidden secret about the classic plan. Even when it’s full, and realized and meaningful, it doesn’t always offer the answers we may crave. At some point, we take a turn, and need to figure it out on our own or with our loved ones. So I’m cautious of plans. They may be a good framework for goals, but they aren’t full of a lot of answers. I wonder how often we follow those plans thinking they’ll have answers….
Why do we face change with such fear and trepidation? In hindsight, it’s probably obvious, but we do it time and time again, and in the moment forget, so it’s important to repeat. We’re growing older, or the world is less secure than I once imagined, or I’ve had enough grief in my life lately – those are all thoughts that are real and true and important to acknowledge. But sometimes, we try to avoid acknowledging change by lifting up the shield of tradition. It’s as if we imagine – if this other thing stays the same, everything else will as well. … but it doesn’t. Life is change. Life is newness, and letting go; day after day. And that’s beautiful and that’s hard. But change is here to stay; tradition or no tradition.
Can we be a little easier on ourselves when things don’t turn out as planned? Even if they really don’t turn out as planned can we still go easier on ourselves over it? Can we learn to assess and judge where we are in our lives without needing to compare it to our neighbor, or to our childhood and child-like dreams? To look at our own growth rings, and to know that we are who we are today from it all. When the day comes, if it hasn’t already, when you feel like your religious community wasn’t perfect in some way – can we be patient enough to remember that that’s an eternal truth for human community – we don’t do perfect? That’s probably a tradition with a capital T that we can not change – maybe the only one.
This heretical statement I’m about to make, is probably especially true this week, in light of the world we have endured. People don’t come here to be happy.Our purpose is not to make everyone happy. If happiness were the main goal, religion would have died out a long time ago, and with it, religious communities. We’re here to hold context, to offer a theological grounding for understanding the world, and to sustain us when our hearts have broken open with good and meaningful words.
Happiness may be an end result of our search, but striving to be happy usually ends in suffering. We cling for what was, or we grasp for what might be. Neither grant the genie’s wish.
Religious communities, in all our imperfections and our awkward dance between tradition and change, seek not to grant happiness, but to offer hope. That through all the turmoil and the hardship, we can remember the times of solace and joy. That change also brings us out of places of suffering. This pain we feel will someday go away. That the loss of a loved one, does not steal from us the times we shared together; that we are forever changed for knowing them, and the world is so too changed for our passing through. We give hope that this all means something. And it does. When I’ve known times of hardship, religious community has helped me ground myself and find my direction anew – before all the change and all the turmoil. But through that change, something new came about. And we’re living in that something new today. Listen for the sheer silencethat precedes the still small voice. For it will surely tell us a new way. And another growth ring forms.
I’m close with the words of Teresa Honey Youngblood we heard earlier in the service.“And yet, we carry a constancy: the still, quiet voice within that knows the difference between the window dressing and the big, wide, beautiful world beyond the window. We feed this wise little voice with prayer: breath, song, service, bare feet walking circles on the ground, slow-cooked soup, gentle gazes held when words fail.”