Posts Tagged Change
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/22/18 and looks at the perennially changing nature of life and spirit.
“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”Pema Chodron
I’ve been reflecting a lot this year about being immersed in a season of change in our lives. It seems perpetual. I hear our congregation talking about all the transitions going on for our community as well. Some of the stories are energizing and sustaining; some of the stories speak of slowing down; some have suffered losses in their family or continue to wrestle with health concerns that don’t seem to go away; while others are celebrating new beginnings with college, or school, or work. Each of these are happening all the time. On any given day, look around and you’ll see a little bit of sorrow and joy in each of our faces. (Although sometimes it’s hard to notice if the person doesn’t want you to see the vulnerability.)
We often talk about the Springtime of our life being childhood, and the Winter being our elder years. In some basic ways, the metaphor has merit on its own, but I’m not sure it goes deep enough. Reincarnation aside, Winter inevitably turns to Spring – and I have yet to meet anyone who’s successfully turned back the clock to childhood. It’s more helpful if we consider the seasons in each time of our life. However old we are, there are always beginnings and endings. There are always times of excitement and exhaustion. We can be renewed by Spring, or we can be reflective in the Winter. This can happen through the course of the day, but over the arc of our lives it’s most visible in hindsight. We see it most clearly when we turn a new leaf in our story. They come together and they fall apart.
What does it look and feel like as we turn to our next leaf in our own lives and the life of this congregation? Ask yourself right now –What season are we in, at this moment, in your own life? What season is our congregation in? What changes within us as we take on the long view of a million or more such turns in the life of a soul or a community of souls?
Change happens. And will continue to, for a very long time. Someone comes along and hears a thing, or a phrase, or a way of living, or a tradition. She thinks it’s meaningful, and helpful, but has a new use for it. She takes it and runs with it; hopefully bringing the idea a new life and a new direction. She makes it meaningful and relevant to her generation or to a new time. All of that’s critical in the life of a community or a person. Times change and so do needs and outlooks. But an idea or a ritual or a tradition came from somewhere and had a meaning and a value all its own. It grew out from a place of shared values of another people or another time. It can be a snapshot of a generation or a family. Where it goes and grows toward is just as important as where it came from – what soil it was rooted in. An idea or practice can grow ignorant of its foundation, but will be more rich and certainly stronger for the knowing.
What season we’re in will often influence how we react to the intrepid new leader or idea. Maybe more importantly, how we feel about the season we’re in will influence our response as well. Are you in a dry time of your life? Will new pathways offer renewal and a turning to Spring? Or are you feeling bitter and willing to allow the coldness to wither new openings? Or are you in a time of reflection in your life where it’s not yet time for new beginnings?
And in the life of this congregation, I’m especially wondering about our new staff team in the coming year. When I got here five years ago (This weekend is the 5thanniversary of when you voted to call me to the ministry here with you,) all the other staff were here from periods ranging from 1 year to 16 years. Now the only staffer with more seniority is our bookkeeper who comes in twice a month. We have had a tremendous amount of transition, and we continue to. Some things we can control, and some things we can not. “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”Pema Chodron
Shortly we will hiring an acting religious education coordinator to cover our program while our DRE is on medical leave, though should she return after this long medical leave, the permanent position will no longer be full time. And after 21 years of service, our music director will be enjoying retirement. (Thank you Richard again for all that you have given us.) Whoever comes –next, will not be Richard. In the coming months, we will need to allow ourselves to leave room for grief, for relief, for misery and for joy. These are the days we are given.
And we choose to spend these days in community. What emerges from community can be the spiritual discipline to manage the pain, and to celebrate the good. In community, we grow, we fail, and we achieve. In community we learn, interact, exchange and connect. As Rev. Nguyen’s reading earlier reminds us, “We are part of community when we show upshiny and not so shiny. When we bring our sour and our sweet. When we shed the shiny and show up hungry.”
As a religiouscommunity, our central purpose, our strength on our good days, is in the realm of values. These days, we seem to be that rare place that explores values, ethics, and theology in a communal- and self-reflective way. And this is wherein our community saves lives and renews dreams. And yes, change will happen here, even here – maybe especially here.
Instilling values is an art. It’s integral to the process of growing up. I have the suspicion that growing up is not so much about learning more stuff and knowing how to do more things and better. I expect it’s less about expertise. Growing up is coming to grips with the reality of the brevity of life. An appreciation for how precious and delicate we all are; that life ultimately is more about the questions of value than the details. The “whys” that lead to who we become overshadow the “hows” and “how tos” of daily living. If values are the central act of religious community, and I believe they are, then this is the greatest gift we can offer – both to the wider community and to ourselves.
Pema Chodron’s quote points us to the “longer view.” (Tell Buddhist Parable of the lost horse.) The failings and disappointments that sometimes feel like catastrophes may in fact be the doorways to new opportunities. The new, the fresh, the next great thing sometimes can’t come about without something else ending. The longer view reminds us that “not all that is bad,” is actually bad, in the long run.
I find that it comes down to what stories we tell about our lives – what stories come out in the moment, and which ones paint a decade or a generation. When we’ve experienced less, we may be more prone to fixating on how difficult, or downright awful, an encounter might seem. But in the longer view, most of these stories seem to open up more doorways than we can possibly imagine. It doesn’t take away the horribleness of the sudden turn in or lives though. (The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy)
Last Sunday I told a little more about my own time growing up, laughing at the absurdity of all the well laid plans we make. I want to quickly focus in on one of those moments with today’s lens. When I was in my early twenties, I was working in Information Technology. I had a solid job supervising a 24/7 computer Helpdesk; with what was then my longest term relationship, little debt and more vacation time than I could possibly use. That was a story I told for several years. But most of it was really a trap for me. I had taken that job as an opportunity to get professional experience right out of college and save up enough money to actually go into non-profit work. The truth is that I was never going to leave that job unless it became a horrible place to work. One new Vice-President later, and suddenly so many qualified, capable and expert colleagues left; many of us emotional wrecks in his wake. I could find no place of compassion or care for this particular VP. I could not find a way to “story” that experience in the affirmative. In the blink of a few months, I was miserable and needed a way out, and couldn’t see the silver lining at the end of the road. Looking back with that longer view, without that Dilbert-esque VP, I simply would not be where I am today. Back then, I honestly couldn’t imagine this new world at all.
The acute clarity of the short-term vision brings the pain and difficulty vividly to the forefront. We can choose to revision all that has come before us and see it in the bigger picture – and still – we don’t need to be old to realize this truth about life, just like we don’t have to be toddlers to still throw a wailing tantrum. (As I said last week, we are all the ages we have ever been.) Doorways forever open and close, but the ones we walk through were necessary to get to where we’re going. We can always choose differently, excepting the realm of death, but the new destination will never be the same. I personally think it’s very bad theology to say everything happens for a reason; but I do think it’s true that we can find meaning and purpose in all the things that happen. It’s how the story of our life emerges. That ability to tell a story, may be the very thing that defines our humanity.
Our elders among us can help remind us of this truth; they can help steer us back on the path of moderation, compassion and forgiveness – ever reminding us that our family and our religious community matter more for how well it strives to support us than it seeks to always agree with us. Our longest-term members (regardless of age) have seen a congregation of shared values living out the past thirty to fifty years. We pass on our values in light of the changing seasons, and activities, and habits, and styles. There is an essence to the life and spirit of this congregation that can be felt and can be lived, but words would rarely suffice. It is our task, regardless of age, to witness this transition; to strive to crack it open for the next generation to partake and to be enlivened by this sacramental work; for the transmission of communal spirit is a sacred endeavor.In the awareness of the precariousness of life and the appreciation for endings that enliven our beginnings we come to know the time of our lives.We honor the best of ourselves by blessing the sanctity of the lives we share in community. In doing so we become a blessing ourselves to the world around us.
Sometimes the season we’re in in our lives isn’t going to shift neatly to the next, or turn back to an earlier time. Sometimes when we live out ourselves fully, and honestly, we can help another person make a profound choice toward wholeness – wherever they are in their path – whichever season.
At the start of this sermon I asked two questions. “What does it look and feel like as we turn to our next leaf in our own lives and the life of this congregation? And what changes within us as we take on the long view of a million or more such turns in the life of a soul or a community of souls?” I cannot answer the first for any of us. But I can ask all of us to be open to accepting a new look and a new feel to the next page of our communal story, for the leaf must now turn. For the second question, I hope that for each of us we learn from the perpetual transition in our communal story. May it remind us that in our own lives each new challenge or adversity is for but a time – and it might just be something that opens a new path that is wondrous all in its own. With each new step, something may pass away as the Autumn leaves; something may finally birth anew as our current Springtime demands; and sometimes the change is nothing more and nothing less than our souls bending toward the motion of that perpetual light which transcends and imbues all life.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Sunday, April 8th and looks at the poetry of T.S. Eliot as it speaks to times of change in our lives.
We just heard a few words from T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, The Wasteland. The great poet, was one of ours before he wasn’t. He was raised Unitarian Christian, before he would begin to explore the world’s religions in depth, only to find his way back to Christianity in his later years. There’s a tension in his poetry that seems to return us again and again to that central reverence in life – the moment between the moments, when all else stops, and we are present to the eternal. There’s a way that in all his questing through world religions, he was striving for that eternal spirit at its core.
I first came to Eliot through religion. It was taught in religious studies, rather than English literature, at my undergrad. Going line by line through his dense allegories, required far more knowledge of folk, religion, and the classics than the common poem. And in an age before google, translating his non-english pieces took far more work than it does today. But like language and word choice, poetry sometimes takes the long way round, in order to help the hero in the story get back to the heart of their meaning. “The moment between the moments,” may reveal more meaning than telling someone to “simply pay attention.” It’s evocative, and that evocation brings us somewhere new.
“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” There’s so much to his epic narrative poem, but this line is the core spiritual message we’ll reflect on today. Eliot is traveling through the Wasteland. He’s feeling tired, feeling aged, and April is reminding him of the possibility all around him, that he feels cut off from. The world has possibility; he does not. Lilacs from what has died, brings back memories of yesteryear, and fresh spring rains taunt his dull roots that ultimately won’t respond. It’s an act of cruelty from his vantage of spiritual decline. Aging becomes a condition, rather than a perspective; banality rather than wisdom. And spring’s hope feels like a thing flaunted, rather than the road forward. It’s an extreme case of being cut off from the moment between the moments; the fullness of time causes us to forget the fullness of life.
The first few stanzas become a walk through memory lane. It shouldn’t surprise me that the poet that can write these sentiments into words, would be the same poet who would pen the silly verses about cats, that would lead to the same named Broadway play. If you instantly want to evoke a sense of nostalgia, begin playing in your head the song Memory, from the musical Cats, and it might get you to where Eliot is taking us in this poem at the beginning.
I want to point out two more ideas from this poem, before I go through my own sort of memory lane, and how we can spiritually use memory, or be used by memory. The point of this poetic message isn’t in staying in the Wasteland, but in finding the key through, in the image of the Hyacinth Girl. “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; they called me the hyacinth girl. – Yet when we came back, late from the Hyacinth garden, your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing, looking into the heart of light, the silence. Oed’ und leer das Meer.” (empty and desolate is the sea). [The earlier german quote and this one together, are a reference to Tristan und Isolde, an 1865 opera by Richard Wagner about the ill-fated affair between the knight Tristan and the lady Isolde. The opera is based on a medieval romance that was absorbed into the Arthurian tradition. The quoted scene occurs near the beginning of the opera, with Tristan escorting the captured Isolde by ship to Cornwall.] Talk about pressing into a few words the fullness of another story. We know Eliot’s connection to the Hyacinth Girl is likened to an ill-fated romance. But what does she signify?
The flower and the girl are the counterpoint to lilacs out of dead land; the other side of dull roots with spring rain. She’s the force that doesn’t allow winter’s snows to keep us forgetful, but warm. If April reminds us of the fullness and the sting of time, the Hyacinth girl reminds us of the fullness of life – and that fullness, can leave us speechless – our eyes can not contain all of it, and it reminds us that all the things we think we know, amount to nothing in the face of that fullness.
How do you story your days? In the fullness of time, reflecting the cruelty of April’s seasonal time-clock of the spirit, or do you story it in the fullness of life, being stunned over and over in our not-knowing before it’s face?
Over the years here, I’ve told most, or probably all of these stories in one way or another. Today, I’m going to try to story them (this time) by reflecting on the tension of time and life.
When I was a teenager, I kept myself busy. That’s a character flaw I’ve yet to grow out of. I replaced lunch with an honors class. I replaced study hall with choir. I stayed after school for Cross-Country or Theatre. I was at the gym five days a week, and ran 7 miles a day right after school. I tried to control every bit of my day, so that I could feel like I was succeeding. I was finding the fullness of time, but not the fullness of life.
I also had the competing desires to lose weight and put on muscle. I was about 65 pounds lighter than I am now… and I thought I was fat (and today, I laugh and laugh and laugh at all I did not know.) It’s amazing how the pressure we put on our youth, and the pressure our youth put on themselves, can translate in weird ways – ways that bring harm to our teens that we would never imagine or wish on them. I remember the day, after working out for an hour in the gym and running the usual 7 miles on top of that, when I looked down at my leg and realized what I had been seeing as fat, was in fact muscle. I was so busy trying to achieve something more than I thought I had, that I stopped allowing myself to see that I was already there. One of my mentors, the Rev. Forrest Church, would often remind us to “Want what you have.” It’s difficult advice to hear or live by. I already had what I wanted, but couldn’t even see that. That phrase would often remind me of my teenage years, and how not wanting what I had, kept me from appreciating and living the fullness of life.
But not to knock the teens years too strongly, many of us keep coming back to that hard lesson in every stage of life. I learned in human development, that we areevery age we have ever been.Wanting what we already have doesn’t necessarily get any easier as we age.
I don’t know what shifted inside me that allowed me to see me for who I was. It’s probably the first moment of Grace that I can vividly recall. I’ve had others, but I was too young to remember them. Being born was probably my very first moment of Grace, right? We come in this world through no fault or effort of our own (- that we know of at least.) That moment in the gym felt like that. So many people hold onto poor body image for years, unable to free themselves from the traps of the mind. I woke up, but I didn’t do anything to wake up. I just did. Moments like this, echo backwards and forwards through time for me. Openness – openness to our selves, to others, to loving ourselves, or loving others – doesn’t always come, but when it does, we don’t achieve it through effort or actions. It’s a gift that we allow to happen. We can get in the way, or we can simply be. But sometimes, we learn to love ourselves – in the fullness of life – seeing the hair dripping wet as the poet tells us, and being stunned by encountering worth.
Moving forward in time – Parenting, or success in our careers, can be very similar creatures. We don’t always have control over what comes from our love or care. We don’t always know which way the road will turn; what will happen to our kids, or what jobs we’ll lose. Some of us have huge families we’re born into and love. Others have a tight-knit family they’ve made by their own care and effort. Careers can be the same. We can fall into the vocation of our dreams, or cobble together a living from so many different parts of our lives.
Often when we’re teens, dealing with school or considering college, we’re given a false-road map; one that many of us continue to buy into throughout our lives. We’ll work hard at school; we’ll make or fail the tests that matter; by our Junior Year in High School we’ll know what major we’ll focus on for college and that’s what we’ll be doing entirety of our lives (and I laugh and I laugh and I laugh.) Why do we tell that story? Frankly, it’s a silly map – one that will only get us lost if we trust it too much. There should be a legend at the bottom of the map that reads “*Objects May Appear Closer Than They Really Are.”
And for those that work hard, and succeed, or do well enough to just get by – believing in that roadmap – sometimes think it’s mostly about their effort, and not about the grace of being in the right place at the right time too. Or living into a world that privileges some, and makes it even harder for others. A recent study in the news this week indicated that “40% of white Americans think African Americans just have to work harder.” It’s painfulto hear that – 50 years after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. That so many white folk can forget the parts of history, the parts they need to forget, so that they can still pretend that silly map, that silly, dangerous map.
I started out studying environmental science at Rutgers, Cook College. Dropped out, and started up again a year later studying Teaching; then English; then Anthropology, then Archaeology, then Religion. (That combo is probably the main reason why I love the poetry of T.S. Eliot as I do.) I went on to work in computers for the first 5 years after college. Funny, right? We tie ourselves in knots throughout our lives hoping we can control what comes next, as if our best laid plans will come together as expected; That all hard work, in the fullness of time, is neatly sequential and ordered. When you hear me say that aloud, you’re probably thinking, no, of course it doesn’t work that way. But then we go about and live our lives as if that story was in fact the way it worked.
Sometimes they will, most of the time they won’t. It doesn’t mean that we don’t plan. We have to plan if we want to have any chance of getting to where we want to go. Spiritually, we go off course when we think the map we’ve drawn though, is the same as the life we hope to live.The map, the plans, the details – are not the fullness of life; they’re the fullness of time. The art of growing up, is learning to leverage the details to enjoy our life, but not to replace our life with the to-do lists.
Or in parenting – who here as ever read a book about parenting? So many of these books tell you how wrong you are, or how right you are, or how to hover over your kids, or how not to hover over your kids. It’s like reading an owner’s manual to a car – except you don’t know which car it’s for – it’s just for “cars.” My favorite parenting book is called, “Nurture Shock.” It’s my favorite because it never intended to be a parenting book, even though it’s a parenting book. The biggest lesson I took from it is the simple truth that of all the tricks, tips and things we can do for our kids – the most important lesson we can ever give is that when the nearly-verbal child points at a spoon – we in return say “spoon.” All the rest are details. All the rest,will likely drive us mad if we let it. Human connection, attentiveness, being fully present to the fullness of life, rather than tracking the achievements in the fullness of time.
That’s the essential lesson in life. Being mindful to the moments when our best course of action is to say, “spoon.” (avoid making the joke about The Tick here.) Whether growing up throws at you challenges around continuing school, or career, or parenting, or not parenting – we struggle to learn to live in the fullness of the life before us, not clinging to the to-do, or the details or fretting over what might be or never was. Over the course of a life, all our choices lead us to who we become. We may feel trapped by what we once were, both good and bad. Both are always part of us – as the good and bad has nurtured the person sitting in your chair today… but we’re not trapped in any one of our many lives we lived. Doors close and open, sometimes through our actions, and sometimes despite our actions. Beyond what we can control – are the moments of grace.
For me, Grace came in each career rebirth. From computer guru, to community development specialist, to religious educator to congregational minister. There were things that I accomplished to make each happen; but being open to the possibility of change – was not an act that could be measured anywhere on a map. In all of our struggles, it is possible to hit the reset button when we need; I only know that it rarely seems possible… until we actually do. Lilacs do rise out of the dead land – and we don’t need to see them as April’s cruel reminder of possibility for other people – we can rise out of our own dead places, suddenly, through no fault or cause of our own – Grace.
But we still age – and the Wasteland will not allow us to avoid this truth.
For years, I would spend the night of Christmas Eve over at the house of a close friend’s grandmother along with her extended family. The family friend’s grandmother wasn’t blessed with good mobility in her elder years, but she had her clarity, kindness, and wicked scrabble moves. Her home would be decorated in every corner for the holidays. We’d attend worship at her Baptist church, and follow it with the best Chinese take-out made to order. Those Christmas Eves were something I cherished. My own grandmothers had passed years ago, and this was one way to see them again.
Then one day, she had a stroke, and should have died, but the visiting care-giver resuscitated her – against her previously written instructions. The clear- thinking grandmother I knew never really came back. Now relegated to a nursing home, there would be no more Christmas Eve’s, or take-out Chinese food. The dementia that set in was strange – as so often it is. When her grand-daughter and I would visit her in the nursing home, she would completely remember me. The part of the brain that stored the memory of meeting me remained largely intact; but her grand-daughter would be a stranger to her. She would remember her own children as if they were still in their teens. Time didn’t mean the same thing any longer. The year would be in the 2000’s with me, the 1960’s for her children, and her grandchildren didn’t quite fit anywhere – but they were in the room, they kept making sure they were in the room.
That fits well into what many of us would consider a nightmare. You prepped as best you could, handling the paperwork you needed to handle; raised an awesome family that you loved and who loved you well into your eighties; who even brought their friends,who also loved you, around to spend time with you for the holidays – and chance rolls snake eyes – memories blend, disappear, and you’re no longer self-sufficient. Your helpless, confused and don’t recall many of the highest points of your life while your loved ones watch helpless themselves to change or heal what will remain broken.
That can happen. That can be what chance brings to us. For some of us, we’re carefully treading in this territory right now; whether for ourselves, noticing some things slipping more readily from our minds – or for our loved ones, wondering how we will cope with slowly losing the person we knew. There are practical matters that need to be attended to, medical advice that might be sought after, or financial concerns that should be addressed. Each of these can matter immensely to our quality of life. And yet, our perspective may matter the most for our sense of wholeness. How do we view the changes – beyond being horrified, or fearful?
For me, the moment of grace was in the witnessing of her granddaughter still visiting her daily or weekly; she still visited even though she wasn’t recognized any more. Grace is found when we focus on the relationships we built and whose love continues on in our passing. There’s no thing we do that makes this love endure. We don’t deepen our love in the fullness of time with busy-ness or tasks; we make eternal our love through the fullness of life. I want to live my life in such a way that should the worst happen in my elder years, if I am so lucky as to make it to my elder years, that I know the people around me will still love me and try their best to make my close as peaceful as possible, knowing I helped to make their life as joyous as possible. You can’t quantify that; and it’s what life is about. It’s what we mean when we speak of reverence – at its core. Being in awe of the depth of humanity; being in love with the possibility of the human spirit – unfurling even when its bud is swaying in the storm. It is not given to us to know when our bud will open; it is given to us to know that it may at any time; again and again and again.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/18/18 reflecting on the winter times of our spirit, the suddenness of change after hardship, and the effort that accompanies Grace.
So we’re coming to the end of another winter. I’m not sure what to make of it. As the years go on, I find myself making an assessment of each end of Winter. I remember in my childhood, and even in my college years, I found it magical that like clock-work, on the first day of Spring, the temperature would radically change – it seemed always clear that Winter was over. I haven’t felt that has happened in recent memory.
My household is ready for Spring. I’m ready for Spring, my husband is ready for Spring, my dog is ready for Spring, and my indoor cat can’t wait to plaintively look out the screened window into the wide world that he can not inhabit – once it’s warm enough for us to finally open the windows. (Lest you think we’re cruel, the last time the cat got out, he evicted the family of rabbits from their den beneath our porch. No one wants that. My cat makes for a much better absentee landlord.)
We were talking about this in my household yesterday, that everyone seems ready for Winter to be over; that we feel like it’s been a hard winter. …But it hasn’t really been a hard winter. I stopped wearing my scarf a month ago. We haven’t had much snow, and I swear last week, my loveable dog that hates being out in the cold – I caught that dog sunbathing on the back porch in a sunbeam. But it still has felt like a tough winter.
The nor’easters are part of the reason. A lot of the trees in my neighborhood – 100+ foot tall Pines, lost so many branches – branches the sizes of normal trees. Our front hedgerow probably won’t survive the damage, and our magnolia tree lost the lower back third of its branches.
I think that’s what this feeling is really about. This season has been a symbol for us; this Winter has felt like a symbol for what we’re going through in our personal lives. School might be tough; others have dealt with health issues for a long time; our Fellowship has lost many long time friends and family members to illness; One more thing can feel like just too much.
And in the news cycle, it seems like every day is another cultural or political nor’easter coming out of nowhere and straight for us. Our next generation is being raised in an America where ethical mediocrity is the norm, and they need to make sense of that while never knowing a world where this was strange.
But tough times don’t last forever. We have to grieve through them as best we can, but they do end and something new comes through eventually. It’s not always comforting when you’re in the midst of an endurance run through rough times, but it’s important to believe; because it’s true. Sometimes the Spring comes, however late, and we’re still thinking it’s Winter because the Wintertime has lasted so long. For our elders, there’s a wisdom that’s learned in growing through the Depression, the World Wars, the Cold War, and so on and so on. They have seen Winter after Winter, come and go. It doesn’t make it easier, I imagine, but there’s a knowledge, from past experience, that Spring always comes – with some great effort. But if this is your first spiritual Winter, it seems like it extends forever.
One of these long Winters, in particular, comes to mind. From Ferguson to Parkland, gun violence, and our culture of gun violence, has permeated our nightmares. Led by our youth, there will be national rally to end gun violence on March 24th – with a local rally here in Herkshere Park. The Fellowship will be gathering at 10am and it runs till 1pm. I’ll be there; I hope you will too. In the natural world, Winter turns to Spring all on its own – but in our cultural world it takes all our effort to make the wheel turn back to life.
And this is true for the smaller everyday winters of our spirit, especially when they go on and on. Maybe the kids at school have been mean for a long time; or we can’t seem to catch a break in our career; or health problems or day to day stressors fill our world. All of those very real things can change how we understand the world. They may be tough; they may be hard, sometimes even very hard – but they don’t define the world. They don’t define joy, or limit hope, or change the nature of our character. I often talk about reverence in our services. For some that means revering God, for others it means to find a sense of awe in life. Today, I think it means recognizing that moment when we see the first flowers poke up past the ice and once froze earth – and knowing that matters – at our core. … and taking a step back and knowing that life has always been there beneath that frozen earth, whether we see it or not…. In the Wintertimes of our heart, life still grows. …
Our story this morning about the magic vase that leads to an epic tale of spring cleaning – is one of the ways we can begin to find balance. There wasn’t anything actually magical about the vase, but that little bit of beauty that we let in (or poke up through the frozen ground in the case of the earlier imagery) begins to help us to see the places where we can contribute to rebuilding our home, in the case of the story, or rebuilding our communities or lives, or even our sometimes broken hearts. Sometimes, Winter, is just a matter of perspective.
Greta and I were talking about spring cleaning earlier this week, and she made the point that often our homes get dirtier at first when we start the big spring clean – stuff comes off shelves so you can dust, every sock needs to be taken out in the desperate hope that this day we might finally find all the missing pairs, all the pillows and what not need to come off for the steamer clean, and so on. Spring cleaning isn’t about making everything instantly better, neat and tidy – it’s a very messy process. When we come out of the winter times of our spirit, even with the suddeness of flowers poking through the earth, everything doesn’t become neat and tidy overnight. There’s a lot of sudden change, but it takes effort, and probably getting things a bit messier first before the final turn.
It’s important, from time to time, to teach our own Fellowship history – lest the wisdom and mistakes of yesteryear ever get lost. We have a booklet that was published at our 50th anniversary that details some of our highlights. I remember first being handed it by Lois Ann Sepez, when she was still alive. She had a smile on her face, and was eager to share our stories with me. It had a story in it just like magic vase (well almost just like it) – our own homegrown story of spring cleaning. Apparently, there was a time some decades back where our building wasn’t as well kept up as it is right now. The minister at the time (Rev. Ralph Stutzman) would go to committee meetings, board meetings, town halls. He would talk with folks individually, or on the phone. He apparently tried everything to get people inspired to clean up the Fellowship building and grounds. Then one Sunday morning, as folks arrived to the Fellowship, they saw Ralph doing the last touches of paint on what are now our outer red doors. He cleaned up the outside of one part of the building, and as the story goes, the membership was finally inspired to start cleaning up the rest of our sacred space. It just took one person to step up, bring a little beauty into a place, and the rest began to follow.
Ironically, I often heard it said that we must have red doors because we’ve always had red doors – it’s our tradition. I disagree. I think our tradition isn’t red doors. Our tradition is a Fellowship that will rise to the occasion when the need is there. We will always find new challenges to face as generation mentors generation, but when the time comes we will come through. Reflecting our theme this month – “What would it mean to be a people of balance?” What balance can you bring to this space? What talent do you have that you can share that might inspire others? How does your presence remind others that there is beauty and worth and value in the life around them – to help balance out the times of despair and exhaustion when we otherwise feel worn down by the long winters of our spirit?
When we build communities and spaces with fear in our hearts, or prejudice in our minds, we create pockets of hardship for some immediately, but in the long term, it affects us all. Sometimes balance involves seeing the holy in the other; sometimes balance is fixing the paint on a door. Sometimes balance is remembering that all our hardships are interconnected; what affects me now may affect you later, or vice versa. May we learn to find more vases to bring to the table – what is your magic vase you bring? May we bring our individual strengths to build the common good. May our times of hardship remind us of the humanity of one another, and carry that lesson forward to the days of our strength, so that we may some day craft peace and joy where there was sorrow.
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.”
All this month we’ll be exploring what it means to be a people of possibility. When I preach on our themes, I usually slip that question- phrasing into the sermon somewhere – sometimes obvious like now, and other times, it’s subtler. I could ask what it means to be a person of possibility, beginning with the individual. We change the world most profoundly when we begin with ourselves. In fact, most religions, at their core, are helping seekers to make the personal changes first – affecting the broader societal changes later down the road.
And for certain, we’ll wonder what possibility as a spiritual virtue means for us individually as well. But I like to begin with “people” – begin by searching for what it means to follow a spiritual path in community, because we’ve chosen to do this together. Unitarian Universalism, for all of its strong streak of individualism, it is profoundly a communal faith.
Our 7 principles even show this tension in the way they are written. Even the newest among us, probably knows the first principle by heart. (What do we covenant to affirm and promote)? The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Even when we talk about the most individualistic of principles, we’re doing so by talking about our shared promises to one another – we covenant to affirm and promote. But what’s less obvious is that our 7 principles move into wider and wider circles as we approach the seventh principle. Worth of individuals moves toward equity and compassion in relations, to acceptance of one another, and through learning moves into democratic practices, world community, and ultimately recognizing how all of life is interdependently woven. Our 7 principles teach us to move from our own experience into deeper and more meaningful connection with the world around us, all our neighbors. The end goal is building the beloved community on earth, ever knowing that we may never see it in our own lifetime, but our purpose keeps us focused on the possibility. So, what does it mean to be a people of possibility.
Our second reading today reminded me of the old folk tale about a traveler who comes to a new town and sees several people hard at work. They’re all alternating between mining stone, or moving the mined stone, or chiseling the stone. Curious, the traveler comes up to the first worker and asks, “What are you doing?” The first worker, exhausted says, “I’m stuck mining stone all day to make ends meet. I hate it, but I need to put food on the table.” Thrown off, the traveler goes up to the second worker asking the same question “What are you doing?” That second worker responded, “Oh, sometimes I’m moving stones from one spot to another, other times I help mine. It’s ok work, and my family is grateful for the house we have because of it.” Feeling a little better with this response, the traveler goes up to a third person asking them, “What are you doing?” This third worker, with a smile on their face, and a little bit of awe in their eyes, answers, “I’m building a cathedral!”
The virtue of possibility is sometimes a bit about perspective. How we engage with what’s before us certainly impacts our attitude, and our sense of satisfaction. But it also can set the scope for what we imagine is possible. Cathedrals are not dreamt up, or dreamt of, through drudgery, though they do take a lot of work to build. Vision casting – imagining what we might achieve together – is sort of the art of possibility; it’s making room for newness, giving it shape, and using possibility as the road map for a better future. Will it always work out the way we hope – highly unlikely. Do we want to keep an eye out for the worst – yes; but we don’t want to be ruled by the worst that might be.
As New Yorkers, we’re good at that last part, right? We can be our own worst critics. Finding what’s not ideal, and poking at it until it becomes all we can see. I’m sure most of us have that challenge in the office, or our teachers dealing with a rather difficult culture in our educational system these days, or the last time we had a family dinner… We do it here too. Especially in times of challenge, this gets rougher, and anxiety rises. Money is tight, the broader norms in our country seem upended these days, we’ve lost friends or family to illness. None of that is easy to emotionally handle, and we can turn toward focusing on all that’s hard and forgetting to look toward what is possible.
As a spiritual leader here, part of my responsibility is to help us not get lost staring at what isn’t working. Acknowledge it, address it, tweak what we can, and keep moving forward. I look to the radical changes on our grounds these past 6 months as a mini-parable in change-management. We’ve had a few cancelled attempts over the past 35 years to repair our grounds, so that it’s safe and accessible for all – whether we’re walking or wheeling into our sanctuary. From the stories I’ve been told, the history is one where, each attempt, we got far along, but there were always reasons why the plan wasn’t perfect for everyone, so we didn’t move forward in doing the needed work. (Who here is perfect? So no plan will ever be perfect, but we still need plans.) I totally see how we’d want to make sure everyone was happy – but in the interim it became harder and harder for folks to park as our grounds got worse and worse. I remember the last winter before we really got the repairs moving, I fell on the ice 4 times. Something had to be done. This time around, we kept our focus on the vision for what we wanted, and did our best to accommodate all our wants without demanding perfection. And in the coming months we’ll celebrate our success and re-dedicate our grounds. (And I’m happy to report that so far this Summer, I haven’t fallen on any ice, even once.)
But possibility isn’t only about casting a vision, or setting goals. Sometimes, it helps us gain a new perspective. Our second reading, by Robert Fulghum, is looking at how possibility does this very thing. Of all the inane, weird things for college students to do for a philosophy class, eating a wooden chair probably ranks up somewhere (at least near) the top. But I love the new perspective it gave them to look at things in a different light. How do you take the small monotonous things we do in our daily lives and turn them into something new and wondrous. They took their 15 miles a week of running in circles around a lake, and imagined what that look like if they went in a straight line in our minds at other places in the world. They started to do a virtual tour of Europe – all from beginning with eating a chair for a philosophy class. As Fulghum ended his story, “For all the goofiness of the project, these young men are learning patience and perseverance. Some things cannot be had except on a little-at-a-time, keep-the- long-goal-in-mind, stay-focused basis. Love and friendship are like that. Marriage and parenthood, too. And peace and justice and social change.”
I mentioned on Facebook yesterday, for those who follow me there, that I was remembering one of my undergraduate Religious Studies professors who forced us to write a 5 page paper every week for many of his upper-level classes. I recall being blown away at how tiring that was after 3 years of doing it. It’s funny how as I begin my 10th year in the ministry, and 5th year of writing weekly sermons that are twice as long as those old weekly assignments, how nostalgic I get for the days of upper-level religion classes. But like the philosophy students eating a chair, leading them to take virtual geography tours, in increments that match their weekly jogs, this memory got me thinking as well. Over the Summer, I started taking a serious look at how much I’ve written. Even conservatively, I’ve written over 200,000 words since I came to our Fellowship in sermons alone – not counting the blogs, or the prayers, or the other liturgical writings I craft from time to time. We’ll see what comes of it in time, but I’m beginning to sort through some other writing projects to see if I can work toward longer pieces for publication. Maybe that will bear fruit in a year, or maybe in 5 years, or maybe never; but it’s got me thinking in new ways – and that means more creativity.
I say this in part aloud as a little kick-start for myself; but more as a wondering for each of us. What is your 15 miles around a lake every week? What is the routine thing you do all the time that might be looked at in a new way? What may come from stretching the possibility into something new? This week, I encourage you all to look for that routine thing you do all the time, and imagine applying it in new directions. Maybe see it as a mid-year tune-up. Or those of us who are on the school cycle, this is the real new year’s time anyway so make your resolution. But don’t get too hung up on making it hard – aim for new or different – and see if it creates new space in your life – where there was mostly routine.
I’ll close by returning to our first reading from today, the poem by Rumi. It’s talking about the quintessential question of faith – the nature of life, longing and God. “So! I’ve heard you calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?” The not-knowing, the uncertainty that descends upon the man that once prayed nightly, is a painful loss for him in the poem. Possibility reflects this existential crisis for all of us in our daily lives. When we’re reticent to try new things, or to break out of a rut – in a way, we’re responding to the uncertainty of the future – maybe informed from our own past. Our inner New Yorker film critic resurfaces, “Things didn’t work out before – or – there’s a lot of mitigating factors on what we’re trying to accomplish- or – I fail so often.” Maybe some or all of that might even be true – but it’s not helpful if change is what we seek. The inner criticisms, even if valuable for course correction heard in reasonable doses, turn into the cynic from the Rumi poem when they become callous to our potential.
“This longing you express is the return message.” The grief you cry out from draws you toward union.” When we’re stuck, or dry, or uninspired, hear these words. Use your longing for a new way, as the evidence of the return message.
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/15/16 as part of our annual Bridging service recognizing our Senior Youth’s transition into adulthood.
Our annual Bridging service always makes me think about growing up and changing times. Over the years, I’ve noticed how we all have someone in our lives who will always see us as the same person they knew so many years ago. You all know the phenomenon. You’ve got a sibling who will always see you as the controlling type. Or you have a daughter who will always see you as the annoying mom. Maybe you’re the happy type and some friends have a hard time recognizing when you’re in pain. Who here has parents who still see them as mostly irresponsible and totally uptight? (You all have diplomatic immunity right now, so parents this one doesn’t count against them.) Who here has children who still think their parents haven’t a clue? (see turn about is fair play.)
Earlier in our service, Starr spoke about the story of the “Hero’s Journey.” Stories are powerful and informative; sometimes they lead us forward and sometimes they get in our way. Starr spoke about the positive kind of stories; I want to talk about the ones that aren’t so positive, even if we sometimes think they are. We have two competing stories in our society. “If you dream big enough, you can change everything in your life.” The second pops up in dating advice when things go sour, “No one ever really changes.” We sometimes flip back and forth between those two when we want to hear a different answer. Both are true in their own way, or we wouldn’t repeat them as much as we do. But both are also not quite right.
For the first – dreaming big enough – think about school. The story goes like this: If you work hard enough you can get into a great school, and a whole lot of opportunities can open up for you. But sometimes dreaming big isn’t about getting into the great school, it’s about stepping away for a time from how things are usually done. It can be about taking the time away from the crazy pace and reflecting on the life you want to make. What is it these days – starting most seriously in 7th grade or 8th grade – test after test that determines compliance with national data points rather than personalized teacher goals? Our Coming of Age youth feel the pressure, and many of our parents don’t like it, and many of our teachers think it has the opposite impact than intended.
And by 16 you’ve got pressure to decide what you’ll study as an adult – if you take the path of college – that may or may not determine your first career. The story goes: If you dream big enough, you can change everything in your life… just make sure that you start planning it by the time you’re 12. If you can’t hear the italics in my voice from your seats, know that that’s kind of fantastical thinking. At the age of 12 you’re not going to know what you want to do with the rest of your life, so take a deep breath, and know that it’s ok.
To our Seniors graduating High School this year, as an adult you can always decide to do things differently. Sometimes you’ll have repercussions for the choice you make though. Here’s a secret I’m going to let you in on right now. Even if when the time comes to make that kind of life-changing decision, you decide not to do things differently, there are still repercussions. That’s the great lesson of adulthood – you can’t get away from it. You can change your major 7 times like I did, and still be fine. (environmental science, teaching, English, anthropology, archaeology, religion, urban planning and then (finally) onto seminary.) You can drop out of college, like I did, and pick up the pieces later. Or you can delay college, and take the time to figure out what you need to do without the pressure of high cost tuition till you know what your heart wants. And your heart may change over time – in fact it likely will.
That’s the part of cliche dating advice, “No one ever really changes,” that’s a bit off. A lot of people actually change quite a bit over time. We just don’t always see it over the short-term. It’s why some of us will always be seen as the controlling sibling, or the clueless parent, or the irresponsible child. Changing bits at a time are often hard to see, and families tend toward stasis … acting the way we always acted …. having the same fights we’ve always had. (Does that happen also in congregational life? Do we have stories we tell over and over again that are only felt because we keep telling the false story? We probably keep telling them because the folks that know the stories aren’t true stay quiet. That’s another hard lesson of adulthood, silence doesn’t make problems go away.)
With adulthood, there’s a chance to change some of that, and yet we often change less than we could. When we move out of the house (for the first time) the world feels so different. When we return home for the first time – everything feels like it hasn’t changed a bit, but it all feels so strange. It feels like our childhood home could fit in one of those glass snow globes, and we’re a stranger looking in from the outside, able to shake out the memories but not go back inside.
For those of us who have been driving already, maybe for a while – do you remember that first time you got into a car and drove away from home? Even if it was just for the afternoon? What did that feel like to you? I remember this incredible sense of freedom – even though I knew I needed to go back home that day. Things were somehow different. I had more control over my life. Entering adulthood is like that feeling. But as time goes on, that feeling disappears. Maybe major changes, like shifting careers, or moving to the City or away from it, or graduating from college, might trigger the feeling again. But for the most part, over time those feelings are forgotten.
I think that forgetting is part of why we start to believe that people don’t change, or that we can’t change. We fall into our habits, or take on responsibilities, or feel real obligations, and change becomes harder and harder with greater and greater repercussions. But remember – repercussions happen whether we change or not. We just need to choose or accept which repercussions we can learn to live with.
Growing up is like a scene from “Mission Impossible” (I’m thinking the old T.V. show and not the snazzy recent movies – but that’s just because I’m of-a-certain-age.) Some mysterious figure comes up to you, hands you an otherwise impossible assignment, and pretends like you have a choice in the matter. Then all record of what you have to accomplish goes up in a puff of smoke and fire, and you’re left picking up the pieces. For the most part, everything will work out as well as it could for an otherwise impossible set-up. You just have to figure a way with the cards that you have been dealt, with the team that you have. Or in the words of the great UU Philosopher-Theologian, Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” (from Oh, the Places You’ll Go!)
But there’s another flip to all of this. Growing up is not just about you. If you can change, make big choices in life, see and live in a new way – then the people around you can do the same as well. When you find yourself saying, “why won’t Mom realize that I’ve grown up, that I’m an adult now,” …and believe me you will find yourself saying that very soon… look for how you’re treating Mom or Dad the way you always have. If they’re treating you the same as usual, you’re probably also stuck doing the same. As an only child I can’t say from personal experience that it’s worse among siblings, but I’ve seen many friends whose sibling rivalry or sibling friendship grow only more intense over time. It’s a great trick in the work-world as well. It’s why people give the advice, “Start as you mean to continue.” Because whatever way you begin, is often how people will expect, or even demand, you to be around them. It takes a long time to change your patterns, and folks often take an even longer time to recognize the newness in your habits and styles. Just keep at it, and your world will eventually catch up.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/25/15. It reflects on pop culture’s fascination with “Back to the Future” Day on October 21st and what that teaches us about change.
If you watch the late night talk show circuit, or read Facebook, or follow the stories that get covered over and over again on the internet, then you might have heard something this week about the old movie, “Back to the Future 2.” In the movie, they famously traveled forward in time 30 years to the date, October 21st, 2015. That was this week. The movie studio put out a promo with the character, Doc. Brown, coming out and telling us the future is what we make of it. One of the late night talk shows even got the actors Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox to reenact one of the scenes – as if they were finally arriving into the future, in the middle of the talk show.
The running jokes have all been centered around what did the screenplay of that movie get right, and which predictions were wrong. No, we don’t have any flying cars, and the hover-boards we have aren’t really hover-boards. Cars don’t run on trash, and thankfully our fashion sense is 30 years better than what the fashionistas of the 1980’s would imagine – for example, no, few of us are wearing spaghetti strainers as hats. Oddly, they did predict a red-headed casino owner would be seeking power.
It’s a classic 1990’s science fiction movie, but also rather typical for 80’s campiness, so the movie itself isn’t all that deep, though still fun. I have been struck though by all the folks who have gleefully sought out the comparisons to today’s world. Or one notable tweet that chided us, ‘if we wanted to have hover boards and flying cars by 2015, we should have elected leaders who would better fund science.’ Ouch.
I began to wonder if we had a script that was supposed to happen, that we all forgot about, until the day of the play. My fellow former theater folk here may have had that anxiety dream once or twice. I’ve noticed since we crossed the millennial threshold, the big blockbusters have, for the most part, stopped putting dates on the screen for things that happen in the future. But I did marvel at how dates (like today – 2015) used to sound so far fetched and futuristic. I imagine if you grew up earlier than the 1970s, 2015 sounds even more out there. How did we get here? Where did we go right, and where did we go wrong?
…I think most of us recognize, most of the time, that there’s no real script. 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.
Or 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 script. 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 scripts. 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 scripts thinking they’ll have answers….
Other than the “American Dream” that I’ve just talked about, there’s another kind of tradition that we often adhere too. I call it, “The way we’ve always done things.” I think this script is probably as guilty, if not more so, of being the source of everyday smaller sufferings for those who otherwise have everything they need. It’s the kind of pain that happens when the only thing that’s “bad” that happens, is that an event, or an action, or a schedule is different than it would have been in the past – and we experience pain. Often, the new event or schedule is just as good, or near as good, or possibly even better – but it doesn’t matter; we’re off script from how things have always been done – so it triggers pain in us. Not real injury, or real grief, or real loss; it triggers imaginary suffering. I say imaginary suffering, because the only pain we’re experiencing is in our heads and not in the actual world.
Some of us may be wondering if I’m being a little unfair to tradition, or not giving tradition it’s fair voice. First, know that many Traditions (with a capital T) have history and meaning and purpose that are valued by communities, and I see that too. We honor holy days and holidays in our religious community for this reason. Likewise, memorial services, weddings and child dedications often are at the top of my priorities. So yes, tradition can be vital and life-saving and affirming. Second, rest easy; tradition always has it’s fair voice. It’s probably the loudest thing any of us ever hear. I think that’s the case, because traditions (with a lower case t) can also pretend-shield us from our daily struggles tied to change.
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.
What would we be like if we were a people of letting go in the face of scripts and 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? 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.
When your Sunday school teacher forgets a kid’s name, or your minister is not all things to all people, or the choir member finally someday misses a note (I know that hasn’t happened ever), or a Board president doesn’t see things exactly your way – can we learn to let go and let live? Can we live into the next today, and not stay stuck in the time of disagreement or disappointment? Many religious communities face this challenge, and it’s a normal thing to wrestle with. I’ve shared this with our Board, and I think it might be helpful for more of us to hear it, so I’ll share it here too. People don’t come here to be happy, and 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. When we fixate on holding onto how things once were, we increase our own suffering. 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.
Can we find hope in letting go? Can we make room for what may come by learning to let be what once was? When we toss the proverbial stone into the waters, hoping it will skip, will we go with it clutching till we soak ourselves, or will we let it sail on it’s own, free of our steering hand?
I’ll close with a return to where we began; “Back to the Future.” Time travels a cute, albeit fascinating, sci-fi idea. We can’t hop into a fancy car or a spinning blue box and travel backwards or forwards in time to the past or the future. But each of us, every single day, travel into the past or wonder about the future. When we cling whole cloth to the old, or to tradition, or make contingent our happiness about things yet to be – we travel in time. We live a life that once was, or a life that may never be. But in both cases, we cease living our one precious life. We may not be able to choose or change certain things about our lives – sometimes pains and grief may not be wished away – but we can choose to live our life. Living into today – saying “no” to our minds’ ceaseless drive to send us forwards or backwards in time -is a precious act of faith. Faith that this moment, this life, is here and sacred and worthy of living. It begins today, again and again.