Posts Tagged grief
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/9/17 for our Eve of Passover and Palm Sunday service on the power of witness.
The American novelist, essayist and poet, Barbara Kingsolver writes, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
We’re entering into the season of Passover and coming quickly to Easter. Both stories speak of such unbelievable travails that culminate with a message of hope. Next Sunday, we’ll focus on the clear vision of hope in Easter, and the following Sunday we’ll look more at the hard days when doubt is our only true response. But today, we’ll take a long, hard look, at what helps us to be in love with life again.
Kingsolver’s words remind me of one of the lessons in the story of Moses that leads the Jewish people to freedom. Liberation didn’t begin with the locusts, or frogs, or rivers of blood; liberation began the moment Moses took a long, hard look. “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” The burning bush is an image that we might marvel at as kids – it’s graphic, strange and fantastical. A talking plant, full of fire, but not consumed. Moses finds God in a piece of life that he seems to only fully be witnessing for the first time – alive, bright and bursting.
What if every tree or shrub we came across spoke so strongly to us? What if we strived to take that long hard look at more of what comes before us? What stories of liberation, might the world tell in our wake? The story of Moses is essentially a story of witness; witness leading to action, liberation, and the Passover lessons we have carried with us for millennia.
Witness is a powerful religious practice. In Western circles we tend to look at it either as speaking to the power of one’s faith or religious experience or community – like we heard Emmett speak earlier this service; or to bear witness to pain or suffering and to extend compassion by doing so. Much of our denominational dialogue these past couple of weeks recognizing long-standing patterns of hiring practices that skew toward men, and toward white men in particular, is a form of witnessing to pain and actively extending compassion. It’s being seen.
Our UUA Leadership council sent out a difficult but beautiful letter to our Board Presidents and religious professionals on Thursday sharing the difficult news that two more senior staff at the UUA will be stepping down in the hope that a new leadership team can come together and move us forward. One portion of that letter I’d like share with us all now:
“While many feel shaken by this change in leadership, UUs around the country have also shared many expressions of hope and resilience. This reminds us that the UUA is much more than a staff and a board striving imperfectly to fulfill our mission.
You and your best values are also the UUA. Your congregations, together, are the UUA. Our children and their curiosity are the UUA. Innovative communities that are imagining new ways of living our values are the UUA. People of Color, people with disabilities, people who are trans, and others who have not always found a welcome in our congregations are the UUA. Your creative ministry and prophetic voice are the UUA.
Thank you for your good ministry and for your support. Your love, generosity, and service are the UUA. Together, we are the UUA. Thank you.” This letter is a form of public witness – recognizing the pain some are feeling, and making it clear that those who feel on the margins are being seen.
Witness, the long hard look, is both seeing and being seen. We find this spiritual notion in other faith traditions as well, although it comes across in a sort of third way. In Hinduism, there’s a notion of Darsan. It’s means “to be seen.” It’s a religious reference to the blessing bestowed upon adherents who may worship before a statue of a God or Goddess in Hinduism. The belief is that by being seen by the God or Goddess, through the eyes of the statue, a blessing is conferred. Being seen is a blessing.
But as Jan Richardson’s poem said before, “This blessing will not fix you, will not mend you, will not give you false comfort; it will not talk to you about one door opening when another one closes. It will simply sit itself beside you among the shards and gently turn your face toward the direction from which the light will come, gathering itself about you as the world begins again.”
All too often injustices happen in the world, and those who are not directly affected seem to never show up. If you’ve experienced hardship, or trauma, and no one is there to lend a hand when you really need it, the experience can be felt as so much worse – dejected and alone. Our faith teaches us that not only are we not alone, but we covenant to affirm our interdependence (our 7th principle.) When we have the strength, fortitude or fortune to give – to take that long, hard look, we are called to do so. Showing up isn’t about others seeing how special, superior, or important we are. We’re certainly not any more of those than anyone else. Showing up is about solidarity. And when a community goes through a hardship, distant intellectualizations from the safety of our living rooms don’t offer comfort. Knowing someone’s there when you need them matters. Being seen is a blessing.
Sometimes the long hard look is humbling. (Tell story of the elephant and the blind men.) Now this story is often told to describe how difficult it is to talk about God, the Holy or the Sacred. To my Christian friends, I come off (at best) as an agnostic, to my atheist friends I come across as a raging believer. The story about the elephant is probably where I actually land in the theological spectrum. There’s a there, there, but we each come to it from our perspective and location.
But this story also applies to understanding any truth in the world, perspectives, challenges, hopes and pains. Sometimes it’s Rich’s earlier story about the magic rock that helped bring joy when it was thrown away (skipping along the water), and sometimes it’s in how we approach larger institutional challenges. From where we’re sitting, we experience the world very differently. Witness, the long hard look, can help us be open enough to hear the truths we’re not quite seeing yet.
It’s also the essence of the prayerful words of Dr. King we heard earlier today from his famous sermon, Beyond Vietnam which was preached 50 years ago this week: “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” Will we forever be so certain that the truth we find from our individual perspective be universal, or will we make space for others who are coming to that same truth from another place? The elephant from our story does have a trunk, and a tail, and legs, but the long hard look helps us to find that it’s more than its separate parts. When we come upon the burning bushes in our lives, will we hurry past and see only a shrub, or will we find that newness of life that burns bright and bursting?
Witnessing is also a way of facing; facing the hard things in life. Sometimes accepting, sometimes wrestling with. James Baldwin famously wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Turning toward, facing, is the first step in building the world we dream about. It’s repeating Moses’ words, “I will go over and see this strange sight” and history will never be the same….
To return once more to where we began, Barbara Kingsolver’s words, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
When we’re down and out, going into another season of Passover and Easter feeling burnt, drained, in despair – what is your single glorious thing? What is your Burning Bush – that which is set afire, but never consumed – that forever draws you forward to purpose, to freedom, to liberating the world from our tendencies to despair?
Find that glorious thing, and write it on the tablet of your heart – return to it again and again. Our lot is not made easily to peace, and ease. I’ll close with the worlds of noted Buddhist author, Jack Kornfield: “If you can sit quietly after difficult news; if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm; if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy; if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate; if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill; if you can always find contentment just where you are: you are probably a dog.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/5/17. As the Christian world enters the season of Lent, we will reflect on what choices we make that open our spirits through vulnerability. This service also opens our reflections for Women’s History Month.
In the Christian calendar, we’ve entered into the season of Lent. For some of us, Tuesday night was a night of celebration, before 40 days of fasting. For my own Lenten practice, I’ve given up excesses. I’m eating less, going to bed sooner, very limited alcohol – those sorts of changes. I’m reflecting a lot on mortality, sacrifice, purpose and meaning. Ash Wednesday is the most humanist practice in the Christian liturgy; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s a time to reflect on the vulnerability of life. There’s a sense of atonement to the sacrament, but one where it’s more about returning to right perspective rather than seeking forgiveness.
This past Wednesday, had an odd end to it for me. A week or so ago, we came upon a pair of tickets to Sunset Boulevard on Broadway, when a friend wasn’t going to be able to go to see it after all. The audience clearly found it riveting, enjoyable and fully engaging. Maybe seeing the musical on Ash Wednesday itself, affected how I saw it, but I found the story of an aging starlet re-living her bygone days of fame, thoroughly horrifying. There’s a classic dialogue that sums it up, “You heard him. I’m a star.” “Norma, you’re a woman of 50, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25.” “The greatest star of them all.”
Now, for the record, I forgot that the Norma Desmond character was only 50 years old – I may have gasped out loud when her age was given. At 41, I can’t imagine feeling like she does in less than a decade from now. She becomes a metaphor for the worst excesses and demands we place upon women; and she in return tragically becomes a caricature of herself. It’s not a story of hope; but one of mortality, lost purpose, and misguided sacrifice – sacrifice that only serves to lift up another’s ego. It’s a cautionary tale, and a critique against our culture of excess, of idealizing youth. It tries to teach us not to box in women, with our impossible standards.
Norma Desmond, despite being known as “the greatest star of them all” in yesteryear, she was a star in the days of the silent screen. She was beautiful, she was captivating, she was young, but she never got to speak a word. Brené Brown, an American scholar, author, and public speaker, who is currently a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has her own words that seem to speak directly to this. “Even to me the issue of “stay small, sweet, quiet, and modest” sounds like an outdated problem, but the truth is that women still run into those demands whenever we find and [risk using] our voices.”
…Risk using our voices… All this month we are reflecting on what it means to be a people of Risk. Our children and youth have risked putting their art on display in our galleries, where I hope they will learn the lesson of stretching into their talent, and I hope our adults share their compliments with our artists whose names are on our walls. Not to be quiet, sweet or small, but big, and present, and central to the life of our community. Being a people of risk, means creating spaces for each of us to grow, and to challenge ourselves. It’s the central message behind our third principle where covenant to accept each another and encourage on another toward growth.
Religiously speaking though, how does risk – how does vulnerability -open our spirits to newness, to life? Love and loss – two sides to the sometimes hard lessons of risk in our lives; to love something or someone, knowing that some day we will all face grievous loss. As the poet Anne Sexton’s words we heard earlier in the service, “when you face old age and its natural conclusion, your courage will still be shown in the little ways… and at the last moment when death opens the back door you’ll put on your carpet slippers and stride out.” Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust; but what comes in between birth and death is worth fully living, without our focus lost on what may come, or what once was.
History is vital, sometimes life-saving, and crucial to our cultural heritage. But when history turns into Norma Desmond’s grieving yesteryear, it ceases to be history; it becomes a prison of the spirit. Sometimes we are faced with loss, powerful and hard. And sometimes our grief is more ‘50 wanting to be 25’; (as if we were actually fully happy all the time at 25.) To return to other words from Brene Brown, “I’ve found what makes children happy doesn’t always prepare them to be courageous, engaged adults.” Now 25 isn’t childhood, but at any point in our lives this statement can be true. What makes us happy doesn’t always prepare us to be courageous and engaged. Love and loss – come hand in hand onto life’s stage – and ask us to live while we can with all the pain, and the joy. Hiding from the ashes in our lives, sometimes is a seemingly necessary coping mechanism… and Lent invites us to face what we might otherwise not be ready for, with humility, with sacrifice; for purpose, with meaning.
We see this in the wider living world too. I’ll speak of this in more detail later in the month when I’ll devote a whole service to the Recklessness of Spring; but I’m thinking of gardens as we are seeing a disturbingly early Spring. As Beth Feldman and her team get our community garden ready to grow food for the town’s food pantry, I’m doing work on my own home garden. We had a lot of wild grasses in flowerbeds outside our windows that although browned over the winter, remained whole through March. I didn’t really want to cut them back; they are beautiful in their own way, and helped to keep my spirits up during the winter months that are so hard on many of us. But if they’re left whole, a strong rain can force the soil to sort of get bogged down like a swamp. It’s best for the plant to cut it back, and have it grow anew come Spring – otherwise it risks rotting from the inside and dying. I miss how my windows look, even though I know they’ll come back again soon. But to everything, there is a season, and that is as true for us, as it is true for the rest of the natural world. We are no different.
Change – the hardest spiritual truth. When communities slowly adjust to the times, we can get in the habit of critiquing anything different by labeling it “change” – as if that in itself makes it bad or wrong – even if the change is slow coming, well thought out, and well discussed. It’s the universal buzzword to end all debate – the worst 4 letter word.
As some of you know, I’m an avid sci-fi and fantasy reader. I’ll find a new author and work through all their works before moving onto the next. Octavia Butler is my latest find. Somehow, I’ve missed her work till this year, but she’s increasingly being covered in English Literature classes. I’m reading through her “Parable of the Sower” right now. She’s a prominent author, and one of the few Black sci-fi writers to break into the genre, and she’s clearly one of the best writers I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Her writing is as much theology as it is sci-fi. Without ruining the plot, especially since I am still working my way through her writing, I want to share a little of her theology that I find translates universally to be true. Here are 4 short points, that I’ll share, and then I’ll talk a little more about them: 1) “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth, is Change. God is Change.” 2) “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” 3)“We’ll adapt. We’ll have to. God is Change. Strange how much it helps me to remember that.” 4) “Drowning people sometimes die fighting their rescuers”
The first quote: “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth, is Change. God is Change.” Some of us are most familiar with this teaching in the Buddhist context, where our attachment to things not changing only leads to suffering since all things change, and attachment to what can not be – is painful. The Serenity Prayer is a more modern version of this spiritual lesson: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” There are things we can change, things we can affect in our lives, and there are many things that we cannot. Love and Loss – to face each as they come is one of the hardest lessons.
But for Octavia Butler, she’s looking at this message a little differently. Change for her is sometimes like a rock banging against an object. All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you.” The rock can break another rock, or a window, or maybe a door; but the rock will probably also break at least a little itself, as it comes up against what it changes. Change always happens in relationship – it’s never isolated. That’s probably part of the reason that is feels so difficult in community, because all the relationships are even more pronounced and obvious – it can feel like the change is compounding upon itself. And during this season of Lent, we’re reminded in even more vivid ways, that every little change can begin to point us toward the biggest of changes in life – ashes to ashes. We all feel that worry at some time in our lives.
The next two theological quotes speak for themselves: “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” And “We’ll adapt. We’ll have to. God is change.” But Butler poignantly teaches us that, “Strange how much it helps me to remember that.” We can catch ourselves always focused on the worst, or on the end that changes bring, but there’s a deeper spirituality found in the practice of remembering that change is at the very foundation of our being. We can forget that we come into this world in an act of tremendous change – that all that is and will ever be – comes from change. Change is also our birthright, and there is a solace we can find in that when we open ourselves to that truth. (maybe tell the short Buddhist parable of the drop of water in the wave.)
Lastly, “Drowning people sometimes die fighting their rescuers.” The novel “The Parable of the Sower” is a spiritual novel, but it’s also a political one. I’ll let you read that part of it on your own, but there’s a line that’s meant to be political during a time of crisis, that I also read it as spiritual. People will find “a tyrant we fear or a leader we follow.” Leaving the politics aside, Change can be either. In our seasons of love and loss, we can see Change as a tyrant to fear, or a leader to follow. How we accept the changes before us, how we open our hearts to vulnerability, determines where our spirits will lead us. Will we see Change as always and forever a tyrant – and experience more suffering for it, or will we understand Change to be a leader that we can learn from as we live into a new day? Love and loss: For Butler, “We are the life that perceives itself changing.” On some days we may wish it otherwise for the grief that it brings us, but self-awareness also allows us to experience love in our life; the spiritual truth that they come hand in hand.
Change is in a way, the great rescuer, even if we find ourselves flailing to keep it from taking us where it is going to take us. The great losses – of life and health – are the things we have no power over – we can only grieve and hope some day to heal our hearts enough to carry on. But so often, we take the small losses and confuse them as the great ones – and we lessen ourselves for it – we risk drowning in the water while we fight our rescuers.
I’ll close with the words of a former minister of mine, Rev. Forrest Church, who frequently taught that religion is the awareness of the dual nature of being born, and knowing that will some day die. As we begin our road to Easter, we do so in ashes. “We are the life that perceives itself changing.” May we hold a fondness for that which we love, that which once was, and may we leave our spirits open for what may yet still come. The act of living is to be vulnerable; may we all so live.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/04/16. For many of us, this time of year can challenge us with times of sadness while others are feeling joy. How can we be present to our ourselves, and each other during such times?
When I was growing up, we used to wonder if we’d have a White Christmas. It didn’t mean to us, will it snow in December, only will it snow on Christmas. Of late, we seem to be perennially wondering when winter will start. This year I think it was December 2nd before I realized that October was over. One recent Thanksgiving, I remember dodging a late waking bee for about two blocks with my bags swinging foolishly in the air. Somehow I managed not to get stung; but the bee had a tenacity that matched the spirit of early autumn’s lingering warmth. The seasons seem a bit mixed up, and neither I, nor that bee, had a good sense of what time of year it was supposed to be.
The long-lasting warmth has made for a really odd season for me. Beach worthy weekends in late September; trees that stayed green, well into November; and the last of the yellow leaves seemed to only fall in the last day or two. I swear our trees here still had leaves on Wednesday. All having the cumulative effect of letting the winter holidays sneak up on me unprepared. Although the drug stores had Christmas decorations for sale two weeks prior to Halloween, somehow I dodged hearing a Christmas tune until two days ago when I accidentally changed the station to the 24-hour Holly Channel.
…When did we stop being kids…? It wasn’t when we turned 18, I’m sure of that. How old were you when you first realized you let slip something that your inner child never would or could have? … What were you doing when trembling anticipation first became sedate? … Was it when your first kid left the house? Or when a sibling passed away? Or was it when you realized you were still single well past the ages your parents had you? Or maybe you’ve figured the secret to eternal youth for your inner kid. (If so, bottle that and hand it out at coffee hour weekly please.) …Are we OK with the change in timbre in our quaking soul, or do we try not to look at it aside from the corners of our vision?
To a certain degree, we grow older, and we need to mature. Life’s experiences grant us insight, wisdom into the borders of things; borders like the dual edge of anticipation and obsession. We need the more sober view of the passing of years in order to measure out and balance all the difficulties, joys and complexities of life as adults. For many of us, this becomes the Blue Season, while the rest of the world seems to be full of joy.
But I wonder what else comes with putting our inner kid to bed. Does a certain part of us go to sleep as well? Do we lose our sense of wonder? Do we close ourselves a bit too much to everyday magic and awe? Do our views and perceptions become too jaded, … too practical, … too starchily useful? I think it’s the fastest way to let bone weary exhaustion set in: Exhaustion in the existential sense – tiredness with the passing of the seasons and cycles; rather than rejuvenation from the rebirth of times and holidays.
In traditional earth-based spirituality we will soon be crossing through Yule – the winter solstice. It’s a holiday that directly faces this perennial existential challenge. It’s a time of reflection, of new beginnings. Matching the symbolic birth of the Sun as our daylight hours only become longer and longer with each passing day following Yule, it’s a holiday that asks us to consider what we hope to rebirth in our lives. It asks us to rebirth our spirit in the face of the cold long night. I’d like to share with you a poem a friend of mine has written for Yule. I find it to speak really well to the challenge this season poses for so many in the face of all the merry and cheer. It’s entitled, “The Bare Bones of Winter” and it’s written by Elisabeth Ladwig:
“Out in the darkest night, the longest dark, appear the whitest stars against a black sky, joining the Moon in seasonal ritual of shadowcasting on the untouched snow. Magickally they manifest: Silhouettes of skeletons that shiver with the wind’s chill. To the maple I want to offer my warm coat, and to the sycamore, the linden, the oak. Come, follow me! My door opens to the bare bones of Winter… But unforeseen enters the evergreen, clothed in angelic light, greeting reverence with a promise… Of rebirth.”
Those trees that were holding onto their leaves this year tenaciously, are now just bare bones outside our windows and along our walks – If we could but give them our coats to keep warm against the chill. Which among us this year relate more to the bare trees than the charitable jolly-old traveler with arms full of generosity? Have we held on long enough to our last vestiges of yellow and orange, or is the silhouette an all-too familiar feeling come December?
This poem gives me a new sense of the evergreen, of the Christmas tree. To be fair, it’s less new than a better pointing back to a very ancient meaning. It reminds us there’s another spirit we can clothe ourselves with. There’s a way to feel full beneath the wheeling of the seasons – A lit path to rediscover awe and reverence. It shines hidden behind the packages, the obligations, the commercials, the packed Home Depots and Targets and Barnes and Nobles on Christmas Eve. We make a practice of bedecking the greens and the halls with festive, and color, and light to make certain we remember to find a place for awe and wonder in our everyday spaces: To craft rooms where we can once more Fa-La-La lest we forever Ho-Hum. We do this in community because every year some of us will be able to sing the Fa-La-La, while some otherwise would only be able to mutter softly the Ho-Hum.
It’s an increasing challenge for me each year. Several years back my parents and I agreed to stop the crush of present giving this time of year. There were a bunch of reasons why we did so, but the most obvious was one year when we finally hit the point of spending Way-To-Much. The gift-giving truce has been an awesome thing for me. My husband and I finally had that talk after 6 years of also doing the Way-To-Much. I don’t spend December fretting over the craze of consumerism; and for my family it’s finally simply about being together; something the holiday never really meant growing up – at least not that I ever saw or maybe just didn’t realize as a kid.
Lighting our trees, warming our hearth fires, decking our halls could be a sign that gift-giving is coming. It can also be the gift itself: The lit pathway to the secret of a spirit reborn. A metaphor that maybe our leaves can remain green this winter; and what a glorious gala celebration that could be for our inner kids who might have been long at slumber.
Life is about the attentive pauses. Not so much about the breaks, or the rest, or the relief. Those are very important too, but not it. Life is about the moments of gratitude, the times of awareness. The world continues spinning, the dancers continue dancing, the cat is still climbing in your face for attention but we are there to appreciate it, though we know not where that place is. Some of us will call it mindfulness. Others may call it gratitude. The less spiritually-inclined might simply call it paying attention; the poet’s “still point” – the lack of motion within every motion.
Allegorically speaking, the story of the birth of Jesus is about this too. A star shines bright in the clear sky. The kings get off their thrones; the wise men gather gifts to bear; the shepherds leave behind their flocks for a short time. Something great has just occurred. Where did it occur though? In some great exciting place? Were there alarms, or sirens, or flashing party lights? No. In the hidden recesses of a dirty manger, amongst the animals of the field. In the most everyday of places, the birth of hope was to be found. All that is, is held within the ordinary, the mundane. Only our perception cracks open its meaning; our appreciation makes all the difference.
One bit of advice I give people as we’re planning for the Winter Holidays and Holy Days relates to this – especially when the holidays have become The Blue Season for you. We can really get lost in all the work we do leading up to a Christmas Party or a Fellowship pageant, all the logistical bits—the party, the caterer, the decorations, the animal costumes, the instrumentalists, the ceremony, the guest list, and so on. As with all things in life, we can let them drive us crazy. However, they can also be an intentional way of reminding us that for that short span of time, we should be fully present. We commit all this time, energy, and focus to the planning of a very short event. It’s a way of reminding us that that joy, that celebration, is worthy of spending the time on it. What happens in the small moment of that candle being lit while singing Silent Night, is that important. Personally, I sometimes imagine all that effort is somehow condensed in the moment. The still point in the turning world.
And it’s those moments between the moments (to now brazenly quote T.S. Eliot) that we can return to for solace, for energy, for inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. (Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to go to work or school knows the difference between rest and renewal.) The still point is about coming back to our place of renewal, stopping so that we can start once more with fresh purpose and meaning.
In the holiday season we stop, we celebrate the return of light, and the turning of the world. We pause to share time with our families, our friends, or just find some quiet time away from the frenetic New York minute. And we begin again.
We begin again as our full selves—or as close to our full selves as we can muster. The spiritual work of this season isn’t about figuring out how to lose the 10 pounds we gained from the eating over the holidays—although that’s important too. It’s not about resolutions on how to get control of our lives once more after a month of celebratory abandon—although that might be needed as well. The religious call asks we begin again doing the work of striving to make the world a more safe, a more just, a more sane place for the migrant in the manger, for those oppressed and seeking a miracle for even more than 8 days and nights. If we do that work, the rest will follow.
The rest will follow because our priorities will be set. The need for the next thing, the distraction, the party, whatever that thing is that we feel we’re lacking, which in reality is not essential—that will sift lower in our values when we’ve set the spiritual work of the season as our essential. The rest will follow when we accept that the distraction, or the crippling addiction we feel helpless before, or the petty grievance we keep at our forefront are not essential to who we are. They are what keeps us from ourselves, not what actually define us.
Mystically speaking – The moment in the manger; the moment we realize there’s enough lamp oil to illuminate all we ever could dream of, that the days will get longer, that the world will continue to spin; the moment we pause to appreciate the Holy in our lives; the moment we pause to recognize the powerless and the meek for their own worth; the moment we stop in awareness of the breadth of life—that moment informs all the rest. That moment of stillness gives the dance meaning and makes it possible. Life is not a series of disconnected moments strung together with only the meaning we lend it. Life is encountered in the flow between stillness and movement. The renewal is of the spirit, rather than the resting of the body.
Our hymn following this homily is a classic Christian reinterpretation of the Yule-time spiritual message. “In the Bleak Midwinter” the earth is as hard as iron and water is like a stone. Even though the version we’ll sing was re-crafted probably in the 1990’s, the lyrics still evoke a sense of barrenness. The bleak world outside reflects the inner world of our spirit; where the Christian Saviour is but a homeless stranger bringing the hope of the world in the most everyday of places – the setting of wood slats and strewn hay. Can we take a moment in our minds to deck those bare walls with garlands gay and singing? Can we take that message and that image with us in the year to come? Can we be-speckle the corners of every dry spirit we come into contact with, especially if it’s our own? Can we let our neighbor help us? Can we offer ourselves that wondrous gift before the trembling bare bones of winter?
As many of us who feel the draw; coming together in a shared spirit; singing for feeling, for joy, for camaraderie. We’ll sound just as wonderful as we let our hearts be large for one another. Allow yourselves now to be present through the cadence of song. Will you please join with me now, rising in body or spirit, and sing hymn #241, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/13/15 celebrating Hanukkah. We don’t always find ourselves open to hope, newness, or the miraculous suddenly breaking into our routines or times of hardship. Hanukkah reminds us to always keep our eyes open for possibility.
A few months ago, we had our dog (Lola) off leash in our backyard. I was only partially paying attention to her while I was typing away on a sermon. I looked up when I heard her dash off like lightning; she had spotted the neighborhood bunny and made chase. Between the time it took me to intake breath and speak, she had seemingly teleported across the lawn. As I cry out, “No!”, my dog’s mouth is about to lock onto the now cornered rabbit – trapped in our vegetable patch (how iconic). But instead, Lola stopped in her tracks, closed her mouth – thankfully without the rabbit in in – and stood there watching. The rabbit paused in shock for but a second, and launched itself away in the opposite direction. I bragged to my friends about how well trained our dog is. I trust her even more around just about anything now. She was probably not too sure why she had to stop, but she didn’t mind the forthcoming treat… And that rabbit – that rabbit went back home to its family and spoke of miracles!
Now I make a little bit of fun, but I don’t mean to mock miracles. And I’m sure that rabbit was grateful for it, as was I. As many of you know, I tend to avoid debating the facts of spiritual beliefs. We may all see things differently, and that’s true for our faith tradition, and important to acknowledge from time to time. But I am protective of the impact that those times of miracle and grace have on each of us. We can parse out all the reasons that led up to that scared little bunny making it out of our vegetable patch alive, but none of them would have much meaning to the rabbit. Certain terror – was replaced with hope and possibility, and continued life. Which matters more – the rational explanation of the sequence of events, or that next breath that promises yet another?
We don’t always have control over what happens in our lives. We can be in a state of prolonged hardship or loss in our own lives, or we can feel the pressure of the hard news stories all around us. Those may not be things we can meaningfully influence – or at least not quickly. Or we can be at a cherished place where family and friends are hale, hearty and close by. It’s the everyday sort of miracle we often take for granted, until it passes after a long time… but it’s a miracle too.
The worst hardships aside, we sometime influence how well we can see the miracles before us. There’s another story about a hare that comes from Native American lore. I’m reminded of it by what happened with my dog and the neighborhood rabbit. The short story goes: there was a rabbit one day who was foraging for food in the field when he spied a hawk flying overhead. The rabbit got very nervous and whispered, “Oh, no! There’s a hawk in the sky; it’s going to see me and eat me!” But the hawk did not see the rabbit, and simply kept flying by overheard, in circles and circles. Not sure what to do, the rabbit stayed motionless and waited, but the hawk wouldn’t leave. In short time, even more nervous than the before, the rabbit let slip out, “That hawk is going to see me!” But the hawk did not see the rabbit, and simply kept flying by overheard, in circles and circles. This went on and one for some time, the rabbit still nervous, the hawk still not catching sight of the rabbit. Until, so overcome with fear, the rabbit squeaked out too loudly, “That hawk is going to see me!” Well, the hawk heard the rabbit well enough, then did finally see him. The hawk was well fed that day.
I first heard this story in my teens, and it’s stuck with me since. This month we are exploring what it means to be a people of expectation. How do our expectations frame our lives? We rarely have control over the challenges and hurdles that come our way, but we usually have control over how we face them – at least on our better days. If you’re feeling at your worst and need to talk, I’m here, and this Fellowship is here for you. Those impossible times aside, we are all guilty, from time to time, of calling that circling hawk down into our lives. We have given up on the hope of miracles, even the normal everyday kind, and we fixate on doom and disaster, and we reap what we sow from fear. Sometimes the script in our head is more subtle. ‘I’ve been disappointed by people before, so I’ll be disappointed by this new person in my life as well.’ Or, ‘I just can’t ever get a break.’ Or, ‘I can’t be loved.’ All of these false messages are like the rabbit yelling louder and louder its fear of the hawk. The more we say we’ll be disappointed, or won’t be loved, the less we allow ourselves to see fulfillment or love when it’s right in front of us. Leaving room for miracles to happen, for newness or possibility, frees us from those expectations that limit and bind.
But maybe all this is too much to believe. ‘What has come before is doomed to repeat again and again.’ ‘Hope is empty.’ ‘Miracles can’t happen.’ Our inner “fundamentalist naysayer” – which we probably all have hiding out somewhere inside us – is a prophet of the past speaking a prophecy that is as fantastical as believing in any miracle. It’s as much an act of faith to believe things will turn out badly as it is an act of faith to leave room for possibility. Which act of faith will you choose?
December is the season of miracles. We celebrate holiday after holiday that point toward times of utter newness in the face of abject despair. Despite all the consumer habits around this time, and all the places of disagreement over religion we see throughout the world – I believe these holy days stay eternally relevant because they remind us that hope triumphs over despair – over and over. You can say that – hope triumphs over despair – but the words themselves have less power, less hold on our hearts, than the stories from the dawn times of civilization. The old world was a very, very difficult place – and humanity made it through…. The world these days, is a very, very difficult place, and we’ll make it through – together.
Happy Hanukkah everyone! The original holiday came about in ancient times. A marginalized people, oppressed by foreign invasion and rule, were forced to worship gods they did not believe in. A grassroots, religious and political revolution occurred against a superior military. It would last about 7 years and culminated with a compromise where the Seleucid armies (Ancient Syria and beyond) would restore religious freedom to the Jewish people. But the holiday itself celebrates rededication of the temple and the miracle of the oil, that should only have sustained the Menorah for 1 day, lasting instead eight days.
Where last Sunday we explored what Hanukkah means as a holder of memory, today we reflect on what it means as a story of hope. We don’t always find ourselves open to hope, newness, or the miraculous suddenly breaking into our routines or times of hardship. Hanukkah reminds us to always keep our eyes open for possibility. We often focus on the story of the oil lasting 8 days as the miracle of Hanukkah. I see an oppressed people living under the yolk of a world super power, who are able to secure their religious liberty, despite all odds. Both motifs in the story of Hanukkah are equally impossible; yet we know at least that the story of liberation was historically true. …Does that crack open a place of possibility in our hearts?
Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning. We may feel like we only have enough in us for one more day, but in reality we have just what we need for the season ahead. Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning. I think of the hardship of so many refugees fleeing a war torn land – whose normal lives were held hostage by the very same terrorists who threaten our nation. Can they bring themselves and their family to safety? And then we hear stories of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees being given safe harbor in countries throughout Europe. We hear of Prime Ministers as far away as our northern border – Canada – coming in person to welcome the refugees to their new home. Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning.
We weep before the shooting tragedy in San Bernardino where an enraged married couple did the worst to their community. This time the shooters were Muslim. Other times they have been Christian, but this time they were Muslim. But this time, our Muslim-American communities responded to evil with good in a huge way. Time Magazine reports, that “hundreds of Muslim-Americans have raised more than $150,000 for the families of the victims… to ease the financial burden on grieving families.” Tarek El-Messidi, the fundraiser’s director said, “This is exactly what we need. This channels all of our frustration, all of our anxiety, all of our fear into the constructive act of kindness.” Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning.
If recent history showing us super storm after super storm has not been enough to convince you of the science of Climate Change, something that is exhaustively documented and agreed upon by 97% of the world’s scientists through the careful research of millions of points of data, this past week in New York has been utterly stunning. I was in sandals and a t-shirt on Saturday – in the middle of December I was in a t-shirt and sandals. And today I’m regretting wearing a sweater under this robe. The last time we saw local weather like this was in 1923. And most of the world is seeing rising temperatures more frequently and notably than we are in New York. And it’s scary and hard to face a world that is so rapidly changing. And at the same time on Saturday, as I was walking outside in a t-shirt and sandals in the middle of December, the Climate Talks in Paris reached agreements between 190 nations to slow down our activities that contribute to global warming. One hundred and ninety nations came to an agreement in the City of Paris – just a short time after the city was ravaged by terrorists, the nations come together to develop an accord for all our safety and well-being. Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning.
And we’ll end our service today with where we began. Our children crafted thank you’s for our hard-working volunteers who have diligently strived for (what is turning into) 3 years on our major grounds capital improvement – our parking lot. It seems like an unexciting thing – a parking lot, but for 40 years (I sometimes think literally 40 years) we’ve been trying to make this a reality – for safety reasons – for reasons of access and expansion of services – and to ensure folks can visit their loved ones in our memorial garden. And with all the permits in place, we break ground this Spring. It’s mundane. It’s everyday. But it’s also something that we had given up believing we could ever accomplish. Sometimes we need to remember to keep the oil burning.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington as a response to the tragedy in San Bernardino, California this week. In community we find strength. As we begin the holiday of Hanukkah, may we light our candles in memory and hope.
As you can tell by now, those of you who have printed orders of service, the sermon topic has changed from what was posted in our newsletter. I’ve been very much affected by the news of this past week, as I know most of us here have been as well. I’m not going to talk about gun control, or terrorism again; but I’m not sure we’re going to get to Peter Pan today either as promised by our newsletter. As we come up to the anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting as well, I’m seeing more and more about memorial services out of congregational newsletters and social media, and keeping the memories of loved ones fresh in our minds. I’m also very mindful of late of the increased risks to folk in the military or all first responders these days back at home in the States. As we begin our festive approach to Hannukah and Christmas and New Years, in spite of all the horrors of the world, I yearn for a sort of Memorial Day in December, and don’t want to wait till May. One more chance to say, we get it, we haven’t forgotten, before we head off to our well-earned parties. So today, I’d like to share you a story about my Dad, and maybe a bit about childhood.
I grew up in a working class household with a Dad who had the good fortune of enlisting in the Navy between the time that the Korean War ended and before the time when the Vietnam War started. Unlike some of my friends, because of this good fortune, I both had my Dad still with me to watch me grow up, and my Dad was mentally whole and in one piece. It was a blessing and a gift that I never truly appreciated. There were times as a kid that I intellectually understood that war could have made things different, but the emotional risks and realities of this never really dawned on me. Even now, the emotional side of wartime loss – is one step removed. And for all the chaos that we’re hearing about in the news about homegrown violence, unless we have family or friends serving or affected, it might be harder to wrap our heads – really – about the reality of it all.
My Dad chose to serve, and my Dad happens to still be in my life. The same is true for both of my parents in-law as well, who served in the Air Force. We can say the same about so many first responders, but unfortunately not for all. Conventionally, the national holiday of Memorial Day we observe in May, asks us to remember those who have served and those whom we have lost from serving. That wasn’t my reality growing up. So most often, I would lean toward “Happy” Memorial Day rather than “Reflective” or maybe “Somber.” So as we travel through a national time of anniversaries of tragedies, and vigils for new horrors, maybe – we can sit a little longer in that time of reflection and humility.
Maybe there’s a way in which Hanukkah, as we approach it this night, can speak to this wintertime need, in the midst of uncertainty and grief. I grew up singing songs about dreidels, thinking about how my friends got 7 nights of presents, and a little later laughing with Jewish comedians making hysterical songs lifting up the Jewish holiday in the eyes of more people. But there’s another side to Hanukkah that we often don’t focus on – at least not publicly…. Remembering hope and possibility in the midst of chaos and war. Whether you celebrate Hanukah in your home or not, maybe we can light some candles in its honor this week, and in honor of all those lives we need to remember in the times like these we live in.
Until I was almost an adult, I had known the death of only one extended family member – and that to cancer. In recent years, that has drastically changed, with all of us having lost many friends in this Fellowship, and me having lost two friends my own age, in just the past 4 months. I’m thinking of this today, because I’m trying to make sense of the type of holiday we often don’t allow ourselves to celebrate in this season of festive joy – at a time when we clearly need it.
Memory is important. Community is important in holding memory. Hope is important as we hold memory.
Hanukah in its deep tradition of holding memory, can be stripped of meaning in our Saran-wrapped, boxed-lunch life. Hanukah reminds us that others have sacrificed before us for purpose, and we benefit from who and what came before. I’m disappointed when the Winter Holidays turn into a simple celebration of toys and gifts, rather than being a time of gratitude for being able to celebrate, if you feel you can still celebrate. We all don’t feel we can celebrate every year.
My changed sermon topic this week is entitled “Community, Memory, Hope.” I could have swapped the words around to begin, as this sermon does, with memory. But the title reflects the reality that each of us begins in community. For those of us who have moved (or are moving toward) membership in our congregation, we are in a way, translating isolation or separateness, into solidarity and inclusion. We begin as members of something broader, something bigger than ourselves alone. The first step in the religious path is recognizing the simple truth that there is more to this immense universe than ourselves alone. The classic wisdom still holds true – It’s not about us. Well, to be fair, it’s not about us alone. It is about us – together. The religious journey begins and ends with the realization that we travel this world for a time, part of a wide and diverse band of souls. When we pause to commit ourselves to a broader purpose, we reunite our soul into the collective spiritual enterprise. The old school religious humanists would say (to paraphrase) that in seeking community we seek to transcend our individual egos and thereby nurture that which is greater than our aloneness. The theists among us remember that God loves all people; that we’re all children of God; and that as part of God’s family we should seek to relate as a family – as an ideal – even knowing we can never achieve that fully; but the striving for connection despite our failures – matters deeply.
Whether we’re learning to place the whole ahead of our temporal wants, or we’re seeking to reconnect with our human family, this congregation welcomes us all. It is from this centered place that we can achieve new life; heal the corners of the world we live in; and come to know ourselves more deeply. The religious journey beings with community. We are not a religious tradition of solitaries, despite what the Transcendentalists might have tried to convince you. Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller and the whole cadre of Unitarian theologians and philosophers were all meeting with one another regularly to share their thoughts and insights. They were not ascetics living in the woods. Walden Pond was written with the benefit of the occasional sandwich sent by Mom. From community we can head out into the hidden places and learn the secrets right before our eyes, but we don’t start or end there.
I recall the words of one former congregant at another congregation, “A community is a group where your contributions are never so carefully recorded as your gains from membership.” In times of chaos like these, being in community is more important than anything we do. I believe that in our consumer-driven culture, it’s rather natural for us to “buy-into” the practice of asking ‘what do we get by being a member of this religious community?’ What are we purchasing with our pledges to this congregation or paying for with our taxes to our country? There’s sometimes a tendency to track how many things we’ve volunteered to do for the community – forgetting that most of the people around us have likewise given much of themselves to bring this congregation to this next high point in its life. Because the truth is – so many people – over so many decades – have given so much freely to get us to where we are in this moment. It’s not about us, or what extra-special service we’ve performed as members. Those things are important, but if we get caught up into thinking they’re the center, we lose the message of that first religious step. The one where the religious humanists remind us that the practice of community is helping to transcend our individual egos; whether that’s in thinking we’re so great, or that it’s all about us, or that we’re only worthy if we do this next thing. Well, we are all pretty great, but we’re all that way – not some of us. Anyone that’s ever been to any congregational meeting and listened to an extended debate knows it’s not about any one person there. And if your acts of service to our community are grounded in the thought that you’re only worthy by doing so, know that you have nothing to prove to any of us. Service can be done out of love, but it should not be done for the hope of love – we all already have it.
The trap is both/and. It’s a trap to get fixated on scoring what you’ve given or what you’ve done. It’s also a trap thinking that you’re only worthy if you do and do and do. When we are in the midst of grief – and even if we shut out the news of the world, this community continues to grieve so many lost friends and family – we won’t find solace in doing. But we will find peace in giving part of ourselves to community. It’s not about how much we give; but rather that we give. It’s remembering that in community we have to be willing to serve as well as being willing to be served. For some congregations this last phrase is their mission statement – We begin our own mission statement recognizing being in community is where we heal and grow and nurture.
I believe, it’s not really helpful to think in terms of counting deeds, but rather being aware of how much more we can be in light of our community. When we’re isolated, or driven primarily by the small e-ego, then we’re as small as that. When we’re committed to the ideals of a community of people, a religious gathering centered on faith, hope and love, then we’re as large as that. And in times of difficulty, seeking to be as large as faith, hope and love, is key to healing our hearts and souls. Being part of a community, being a member, means giving of ourselves so that we broadened our impact and scope to the width and breadth of our collective vision and dream. We remain ourselves, but we begin to point to the horizon of our shared dreams. It’s in this act of pointing that we mark the trajectory of hope. Coming together, we become more ourselves, more human. Remembering where we come from; being grateful for the efforts, sacrifices and energy of those a part of us; we craft a way forward grounded in hope; predicated on the possibility that the whole is no less than the sum of its parts and likely much greater than those parts alone. I wish us all a reflective Hanukkah, and hope we can celebrate and we can remember. Together, from that place, may we find a place of happiness as well; because so many have given so much to get us to where we are this day.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/1/15 as part of our annual Dia de los Muertos service remembering the lives of those who have passed. It’s written for a child-friendly gathering.
It’s always important to learn from our own history and culture as well as the cultures of those who may be different than us. But I think it’s especially important these days, in light of certain people in our country sometimes disparaging folks who may be different, to lift up the strength and values we find in difference. Dia de los Muertos, is a sacred tradition in Mexican communities where we celebrate the life of our ancestors. We often feel grief after someone dies. This holy day doesn’t say we can’t still grieve, but it does teach us to try to celebrate the life of those who were so important to us. Our ancestors live on, in a way, through us – and that is a good reason to celebrate.
This time of year, we remember those we loved who are no longer with us. Earlier, we read the names of those who have died since our last Dia de los Muertos service. It has been a very hard year for our Fellowship, with someone in our community facing such a loss about ever 3 weeks. In my own life, Brian and I have lost two friends in the past two months – both around our own age. With the loss so recent, it can be very hard to get to that place of celebrating the people who touched our lives. In some ways, I can’t yet. I just want to say that because I know everyone will come to this service from a different place, and I want to honor that. But in some ways I can; I can celebrate the laughs, and the lessons, and the hard times we got through, and the easy times we enjoyed. I can celebrate getting to carry a piece of their heart in mine, and maybe, hopefully, figuring out how to share that piece of their heart with you – day by day. And that is a reason to celebrate, to dance, to smile for what once was, and what will never really go away. Love is eternal, and we show it through the pieces of our hearts we give to one another. We can still do that, even when our hearts may still be broken. The human heart is a miracle in that way.
All this month we will be reflecting in worship, in our religious education classes, and in our journey groups, on what would it mean to be a people of ancestors? It’s kind of an odd question because in some ways, regardless of what we do, we are all a people of ancestors. We all come from someone, and that never really goes away. But the spirit of the question is really about, what would it mean if we lived knowing we come from those before us, and maybe live on in their name.
How do we live differently when we keep in mind the people we love, and who loved us? Are we kinder? Are we more forgiving? Do we want to be our best selves in light of what they meant to us, or did for us? We do that with our family or friends in our lives every day. I know when I’m doing something that will get picked up by the news, or when I post something to Facebook or Huffington Post, that my parents may someday see it or read it. I never quite know when they’re going to pay attention, (or find their way to the internet), but I know it could happen at any time. So I try to speak and act publicly in a way that keeps them in mind. My parents are still around – thankfully – but I think it still counts for living in such a way that I remember the people that came before me, who lifted me up, and helped me along life’s path.
… I want to tell you a story now. It’s called “A Lamp in Every Corner.” It’s written by Janeen Grohsmyer, a UU and published in a book of short stories under the same title, and it speaks to this in a different way.
I think about Zora’s lantern from time to time. This story reminds me of a UU summer camp on Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine, that some of us here goto. It’s a Summer camp for children, youth and adults. I’ve gone for years, although I haven’t had a chance to go recently. Every night, the last events are evening worship. People line up outside and are given a lantern, and they walk up a stony path to a small chapel and light the way with those lanterns. The chapel itself has no electricity, so the lanterns help everyone see each other while sitting or singing in worship. Have you ever been in worship at night, lit only by fire? I know many of us here have who have attended Fahs Summer camp, or maybe you’ve been to a youth con where this happens. It’s a special and powerful feeling, especially in a world of lightbulbs and smart phones and video games. Going back to natural fire for light can feel magical, right?
I think there’s a way that’s true for going back to our roots, or our source, when we remember living in the light of the people who came before us. The world can be very modern, and shiny, and new sometimes, but there’s something special and powerful about remembering where we came from – and who we came from. The lights can still shine around us, whenever we remember to mindfully reach over for the lantern hanging from the hook and carry it with us consciously.
And some of our ancestors weren’t just a light we can see by. Some of them helped build those churches and congregations that came before us. Some of them nailed the lantern hooks to the walls; some of them built the lanterns we carry today. I look around this room and remember that this main hall was not always here. The chalice on the wall behind me was built by Les Swan. These lecterns and chalices were hand-crafted with love and care. When we’re a people of ancestors, we don’t just come to this space and see 4 walls, red chairs, a rug and wooden lecterns. We see pieces of our history that frame who we are, where we’ve been, and imagine where we may some day go. We live into this religious community remembering the people before us, and hopefully, we bring our best selves – hoping to live in the light of those who came before, and making way for those who will some day take our place. And we make something beautiful through it.
There’s a buddhist parable that’s like this. Some of you have heard this before, which means it’s a great story to share again… (tell story of the drop of water and the wave.)
I love this story. I’m a huge beach-goer, and I think of it often when the sun is glaring off a gorgeous wave, rising and falling. The waves come and go, and gift a certain beauty and character to the ocean that wouldn’t be the same without their passing through. Each of us will be ancestors, or role models, or the hope for another’s heart. May we be so with gladness in our eyes, and a fullness in our hearts for those who helped us along the way.
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.