Wanting to Break Free
“On the rules we put upon ourselves, or have put upon us.” CW: Trauma and Gun Violence. (preached on 8/4/19)
It’s good to be back in the pulpit after a July away. The Summer has been a great time of catching up with family and friends, of spending more time with my dog, and seeing more of the beach and the parks than I will be able to for quite some time. It’s also been a strange Summer. Our community has suffered more losses in our families, and our friends. This weekend we endured the 250thand 251stmass shootings back to back. The state of our nation seems more fraught than any other time in my lifetime, though for some of us here, you’ve seen worse times, or maybe just similar times. In my family, we’ve begun openly talking about taking all the things days by day, or hour by hour. As part of my role in the ministry, I stay immersed in the news cycle – as horrid as it is – but we’re getting in the habit of tuning it out at night so that we can make sure we have some peace of mind, before delving into what’s next, the next morning. How do we meet that balance that we heard from Dan Rather’s words this morning – to still be able to take time to ourselves, for ourselves, without shirking our responsibility to bear witness to what is before us, in all its ugliness, rancor and threat?
I was stunned when I came back to work on Tuesday to learn that 7 or 8 of our households, or extended families, have suffered significant losses or medical concerns. I know in the cycle of life, this is part of life, but this is still traumatizing for many of us. And all of this is going on as the news cycle re-traumatizes so many of us. Even if you are not directedly impacted, seeing so many people around you suffering from it, is enough, over time, to create a sort of vicarious trauma. It seems like many of us are swimming in it these days. Be gentle with one another and yourselves.
The common wisdom, of one day at a time, has a practical and a spiritual side to it. Practically, we have to handle what challenges and tasks are before us right now. Hospital visits have to be made. Dinner has to be cooked. Public witness needs to continue to ensure the meter doesn’t veer further toward fascism. We have to make sure we vote in every election, every state election, every town election.… And to be honest, none of those needs change, if we’re overwhelmed by it all; and many of us are overwhelmed. Spiritually though, I think the proverbial take-it-one-day-at-a-time means something different. How do we find the place in our lives for the tenets I so often talk about: openness, mindfulness and reverence? Those three are central to much of my preaching, and they are no less important when we’re dealing with the traumas of the world we increasingly face.
Some of us know all too well the power of trauma to narrow our vision. When we focus on the enormity of what’s before us, or what has just happened, we tend to close out everything else. The things that brought us joy or purpose, hope or laughter, seem so far away. Grieving is necessary. Grieving is healthy. But when when it closes us wholly to joy, or purpose or hope, it cuts off the very resources we need to find wholeness again. And sometimes, we don’t experience grief in the face of trauma; sometimes we carry it with us for days and weeks and years and we don’t feel anything – or we feel anxiety, or stress, or panic when nothing is apparently wrong. It’s hard to function when our feelings are replaced with stress, anxiety and panic. That’s very real, and very hard to live with.
Openness is not just a principle, it’s a discipline. When we’re taking it one day at a time, spiritually, we look for the places of hope when hope is still a possibility. Or we look for the places of gratitude. We immerse ourselves in the time we still have with one another while it’s still here. Or we remember the joy someone brought into our lives. Love and joy are eternal; and we carry them with us into the world – touching life after life with their stirrings. But we remember that only when we’re still open. And maybe – just getting dinner done – is the only act of love we have in us. Somedays, that’s enough.
Mindfulness of what’s before us, and only what’s before us, can also keep the walls from pressing in. Yearning for something more, or better, can help us to strive to push through a hard time. But it can also paralyze us with wanting what may not be possible. We risk trading the time we have, or the world around us, for pain and loss over what will not be. It’s an impossible place to be. I’ve seen folks collapse before the sense of loss. And I’ve seen others smiling and laughing till their last hour – despite the pain. There’s no right or wrong – surely everyone’s situation is different. But I’ve found attending to what’s right before us, leaves more room for healing in our hearts and souls. And you’ve probably heard me say this before, and I’ll say it again, because it’s some of the best biblical advice I’ve ever heard – worry makes us live through something twice if it actually happens, or it makes us live through it once even though it never happened. Be present to the adversity before us, one step at a time; don’t stack up all the hurdles we’ll encounter along the way in front of you now.
The third tenet in this grouping – reverence – may be the soul saving part when we’re in deep grief or even deep depression. Grief and depression keep us focused on what we’re losing, or what we lost, or sometimes in the case of depression – what we only think we’ve lost. Again, there’s nothing wrong with grief – in fact it’s a healthy part of healing, and depression is not one’s own fault. Reverence calls us back to our birthright – life – for as long as we have it. In a universe of nigh infinite stars, the chance of you or me ever being here – in this place – with these people – is remarkable. To be born; to live; to find love or to know friends. Maybe to raise a family or to help someone in need. The chance of any of it having happened how it has, is just shy of impossible. And yet we are. When I grieve, I try to remember this. I try to hold the life I’ve been given with a sense of care and awe, because it deserves both. I try to remember to be grateful for the people I’ve known, and the lives I’ve changed, and how those lives changed mine. None of that is lost – ever. To remember, that just like there are people in my life who have mattered tremendously to me, there are people who I have so mattered to as well. None of that is lost.
When I’m at my worst, I yearn for a sense of reverence. I’ve lost my sense of awe. This kind of yearning brings us back to our center. It also brings us back to our purpose. In popular culture, we often think of the spiritual as airy-fairy. I disagree. I find it grounding. I’m most myself, I’m most whole, when I’m grounded in that sense of awe for life, for the world around me, an awareness of the holy surrounding me. And that holiness, is within reach, every step of the way. The road may just be as long, and filled with just as much hardness, but its character changes along with our changing awareness. We just need to return to the next step before us with attention, and the rest may follow.
For those of you new to our Fellowship – Openness, Mindfulness, Reverence – are the basic theology you will hear most often from this pulpit – whether you hear those words explicitly, or they are simply quietly informing the message. That’s the takeaway I hope us all to leave with, every week.
But in this time of adversity – knowing that all times have adversity – there’s another side to mindfulness that we sometimes get wrong in the West. Our denomination, the UUA, shared a news article recently about mindfulness – the full link will be in this sermon online in a few days. But I want to quote one part of it now. The quote is from an article by Hettie O’Brien in the New Statesman.
“The mindfulness movement took off in 1979 when one of its progenitors, Jon Kabat-Zinn, founded a stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts – the same year Margaret Thatcher became prime minister and a year before Ronald Reagan was elected as US president. Purser argues that mindfulness has become the perfect coping mechanism for neoliberal capitalism: it privatises stress and encourages people to locate the root of mental ailments in their own work ethic. As a psychological strategy it promotes a particular form of revolution, one that takes place within the heads of individuals fixated on self-transformation, rather than as a struggle to overcome collective suffering.”
Now, to be clear, this article isn’t bashing mindfulness itself, but rather focuses in on the one-sided approach to Mindfulness the West has largely adapted. We have a tendency to see the positive role of mindfulness in our personal adaptation to suffering, without carrying the practice out to the community by way of mindfully witnessing public suffering, and addressing the changes there. Yes, personal practice can help you through times of such trauma we live in, it helps me as well. But our national systems seem to try to keep it at the level of the personal and not the communal.
In some of the medical system, the onus is on the patient to singularly change their behavior to get control of their stress and anxiety over or rather than a co-joined effort to change work-place systems that contribute to stressors. In another words, if you can’t handle your work week in this world that has largely busted Unions and so many of us are taking are home with us, then it’s your personal problem to change how you are impacted by that. That’s the part the article really focuses on.
But this goes beyond formal structural systems that contribute to harm. It also plays out in social networks. Witnessing to the racist actions and words, that seem all to common and out and open to the light of day, gets twisted as being “the real racists for mentioning race.” Speaking truth to the power of hate, is being mindful of the harm being caused, not a source of harm itself. But the politic of neoliberal capitalism is to always shift the onus of responsibility onto the individual, and to not allow it to be held by the public. Discussing racial harm becomes only acceptable when it’s in the private space, where no one else would ever hear it anyway. That’s not mindfulness; that’s not prophetic speech; that’s not genuine – and that continues to be the tool of the oppressors of every age. And I mention racial tensions, and racially based harms not only because we have a political arena that is obviously racist to anyone not trying to pretend unmerited innocence, but also because the impacts of racism are a form of trauma as well. And communities of color have long swam in those traumatic waters. True mindfulness, recognizes the connections and interdependence between the sufferings of grief, trauma, and hatred. True mindfulness, seeks to bear witness to the spectrum of suffering, and to seek to change their causes.
Mindfulness, in a prophetic sense, is another way of talking about our third principle; it can be one way we apply the religious discipline inherent to our third principle. We covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encourage spiritual growth in our congregations. It’s phrased as an action statement – not a creedal belief. We aren’t saying we believe in acceptance in growth, although many of us may in fact believe so. We are saying that we will commit to promote acceptance and spiritual growth with each other and in our religious homes.
I say it’s a religious discipline because it’s hard work, and something our religion demands of us. It also happens to be something we ask of each other as congregants. The promise of this discipline is saving. I don’t mean to say that it’s saving in the sense of some afterlife that will happen at some indeterminate point in the future. I mean to say that it’s saving right here, right now. Without the conviction of this discipline, we are only promised a life of isolation and stagnation. Or of easing our own immediate worries, while ignoring our neighbors’; you can choose to live that way, but we fall short of our humanity in making that choice. With it, we enjoy the promise of a deeper connection with the life around us. The main demand is to let go of the clutch and grab of judgment we so often employ against ourselves and others. To move through base tolerance of others who we may or may not resonate with, and to learn to accept them for who they are. To let go of that clutch and grab requires a discipline for most of us.
Let’s go back to the story of the businessman and the fisherman from our words for all ages this morning. It wove our great unease of days and people together. The start and finish of the tale talks about the forward rush of our lives. Businessman and fisherman are both seeking to enjoy the life and days around them. The fisherman seems to have already found it, while the businessman puts it off for the future. “Well, then you could spend the rest of your life just doing whatever you wanted to do, sitting in the sun, relaxing and enjoying yourself, with no worries…”.
This is an aspect of acceptance that leads toward the second half of our third principle. It’s a marker of spiritual growth to be able to appreciate what you have and where you are when you’re there rather than forever holding off to some point in the future or clinging to some past existence. This can also be true of communities. How fast is fast enough to be perfect? How soon is soon enough to be the Beloved Community we dream of? If we ever got there, would we notice it?
But the subversion of the fuller mindfulness practice brings with all this a risk. When the religious community isn’t perfect, or it isn’t fitting our personal needs fully, or doesn’t match up with our personal set of opinions, we can be consumers and shop elsewhere – even if the problem isn’t in the community but in our own hearts. Or we can be the bulwark against a community changing with the times to fit the needs of a new generation – also.
About that story though, I should offer the caveat that not all businesspeople delay their life for some future date, and not all fishermen are so moderate and steady with their fishing habits. I could imagine a tale that offers the same message with the roles reversed. It would involve an entrepreneur who may or may not enjoy what she’s doing, but fully appreciates how it allows her to share time with and support her family or friends. In this story there would be a fisherman that overfished the seas and criticized the entrepreneur for keeping her company so small and not expanding to consume more resources. In either case, one of the people in the story suffers discontent and disconnection with their own lives, and feels the need to project that out onto the life of another.
In learning to accept one another, we inevitably will encounter this last truth. Much of what makes us unsatisfied with others is merely a projection of what we mistakenly believe is lacking in our own lives. The spiritual dimension of growth calls us to a life where we recognize the abundance we have. We may not have abundant wealth, or health, or love, or talent; or may be in a place where we have all or some of these but we lack the abundance of clarity to be able to see what we do have. We may also be in a place of true brokenness. Something deep and flawed has occurred in our selves, or in our lives, or in a loved one. Acceptance is crucial here for growth. Acceptance doesn’t mean learn to live it with without seeking change or healing. Acceptance is the first step in recognizing the place of true brokenness is real for you or your family now. We can’t heal from that which we don’t first name.
Whether you are largely full now, or traveling through a time of brokenness, try to find a place where you recognize that you have enough of an abundance of life keep on keeping on. This is a tough discipline for all, especially for me; but one that has life saving potential. One way to repay that gift is to help others to recognize this truth. Rather than seek to teach it, model it by living into acceptance; every chance we get. I’ll close with a return to our words from DeReau K. Farrar, who said, “I wanted so badly to break free and let loose on it. However, looking out at our (we’ll call them) upright congregation, I just couldn’t. Most of them wouldn’t have minded, but still: I was stuck in my own false ideas of their expectations of me.
Luckily, as with many of life’s developments, there’s still time.”
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