Growth Rings

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.”

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