Posts Tagged grief
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/7/18. It responds to the pain around this week’s news, especially in relation to the Supreme Court hearings, and sexual violence.
For those of you who follow me on social media, you already know that I was contemplating replacing this week’s message with 20 minutes of yelling the rage I’ve felt from this week’s news. As disappointing as that may be for some of us, (me not actually doing that,) I know it would just scare our babies, and the last thing this world needs is another angry white man making loud noises.
But I do have a ministerial responsibility here; wehave an institutional responsibility here – in the face of the psychic harm so many of us who have endured sexual violence – those who have endured, were forced to manage all over again these past two weeks. There are many calls to action that are easy to find, but today, I’m going to try my best to help us form a stronger grounding in our faithful tradition. To sort out where we come from, and to nourish the parts of us that need to find our center again. And for those that are called to act, that we offer some food for the work ahead, and our broken hearts.
The direction of this sermon will be different than originally posted, but we can’t ignore the world around us. And we will still find our way to the posted metaphor of Growth Rings.
I want to begin with Jewish Scripture, 1 Kings 19:11-12. The prophet Elijah has fled out to the wilderness. The people have broken their covenant, the other prophets have been put to the sword. And then the prophet Elijah hears the Word of the Lord. I grew up reading this not as a booming voice, but that small still voice. “11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;
12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”The section goes on to hear the Lord’s message to Elijah to anoint new leadership. From the silence, that still small voice, there came the new beginnings that would change the fate of Elijah’s people.
Think about Elijah’s mental state right there. He’s seen his people break their promises; kill his friends and fellow spiritual and ethical leaders and he comes to the place of God – and witnesses a tremendous wind that could ruin mountains – but God was not in the destructive winds. Then an earthquake, but God was not found in that threat of ruin. And if this chaos was not enough, a fire, but God was not the fire.
When we witness week’s like this week; week’s where there is moral failure in our leaders, when truth is put to the sword, and our government agencies are wielded like fire, and quakes, and institution shaking winds – we need to remember – in week’s like this, that God (and conscience), is not in these destructive forces, but in the sheer silencethat fills the aftermath. From that moment of silence, comes the still small voice that calls us to action. Our collective conscience can not be heard while the whirlwind drones on, but we must center ourselves in that conscience.
And for those in our room today, who are survivors of sexual assault, be especially gentle with yourselves right now. We know the whirlwind in our government is retraumatizing. But know that God is not in that whirlwind. God is not in that whirlwind. As helpless as we sometimes feel in the face of it all, scriptures tells us that after we witness the whirlwind, the voice that speaks from the silence shows us the way to anoint a new world and new leadership. This isn’t an empty hope, but a bedrock for sustenance when all seems turned upside down.
This week will leave its mark…. You know how trees have those growth rings showing their age. Those rings also are a map for what happened in the world around them. The rings show the impacts of drought, or fire, or insect plagues, and so on. The stories we tell, or not tell; the inner places of our hearts and minds, are our human sort of growth rings. The raw places of our spirits, show the markers of another kind of cultural drought or plague. If we were to look at a cross section of our spirit, we could map out the world around us. As Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” As a new growth ring forms in our lives, we do not yet know how we’ll understand it a generation later, even if it seems like all we could focus on in our world at the time. That map can only be understood backwards, not forwards….
Earlier this week I got asked, “what’s my plan.” The “plan” in the big sense of life. And I thought for a few seconds and basically said, “I don’t really do plans anymore; they just tempt life to laugh at me.” Do you remember when you last had a plan? Do you still make them?
This morning’s story focused on the parable of the terrified squirrel; a squirrel with a plan. The plan would address all the fears and horrors of the world, should he ever be forced to actually face them. Silly things like green martians and sharks in the woods, to falling out of a tree. Falling out of the tree can be a very serious risk, especially if my dog is sitting under the tree when the squirrel falls. That would be serious enough to leave a new metaphorical growth ring on that squirrel’s psyche. (For what it’s worth, that fear seems to be a weekly occurrence in my backyard. So not all of Scaredy Squirrel’s fears were unfounded.)
Now that cute kids’ story, was about how our best laid plans don’t always work. But it was also about not living one’s life forward. When the Unknown is a threat to avoid, we hunker down into our singular trees. And when he moved into the unknown, he learned something new about who he was and what he could do.
Do you remember when you last had a plan? Do you still make them? Maybe where life deviated from our best laid plans, we can see those markers in our spiritual growth rings, when we look back, even if we can’t understand it at the time. I find that spiritually sustaining in times of chaos. Get a good night’s rest, stay hydrated, in times of chaos, and know that even if the thing will still be horrible in the morning, we may understand it differently down the line. Maybe the horrible thing, like in the silly kids’ story, will teach us that we’re able to fly after all. I know I’ve had that lesson in life, more than one time. Or in the case of the Prophet, knowing that God was not found in the destructive forces before him, but in the witness, in his conscience, in the path forward. It doesn’t make anything that happened any less horrible, but we understand our story differently looking back; even as we live forward. And another growth ring is formed.
How did we get here? Where did we go right, and where did we go wrong? We all had plans; and maybe some of us still do.
…I think most of us recognize, most of the time, that there’s no real script, there’s no plan that will 100% survive the real world. We do our best and take one step at a time through the years. Life is a mixture of joy, and challenge, hope and grief. Some of us have it easier, and some of us have it harder, but none of us live without stress. That being said, I think most of us also fool ourselves into living like there is a script. It sounds different for each of us. Maybe yours is the standard american dream – graduate from school, get a job, find a spouse, have children, and own a home. It’s a good script to have. It only becomes a problem when we think we should follow it, but life doesn’t match it. Maybe school isn’t for you. Or these days, jobs change far more frequently than they used to. My dad retired after working at the same company for almost 50 years. That kind of security doesn’t really happen anymore. Each one of those events, when we look back, is another marker of where we’ve been, and who we become. They never leave us, even if we’re a new person along the way.
I love Joan Didion’s words from our reading earlier, especially one part that stood out for me: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be…”. Some of our earliest Unitarian theology, by the minister William Ellery Channing, in the early 1800s, spoke of a salvation by character.He had the notion that it was our primary work to develop and nurture our character throughout our life; that God’s salvation would be found through that work. And that society would benefit from that personal progress. It was still a communal outcome that he sought, but he would translate the Puritan work ethic into a theological spiritual formation of the individual.
I put Channing and Didion’s words into conversation with one another intentionally. She is reminding us that despite however much we may believe the person we are today – our pains, our joys, our annoying habits – is the person we actually are, she is reminding us that in a generation or two, we won’t even recognize that person we are so very attached to today. If Channing’s call is of worth, that formation of character is a saving grace, then Didion’s very practical human wisdom, is drawing a clear picture for us. Our hearts, our minds, our egos, our spirits – they all change and form and grow and recess, over time. For most of us, if we allow ourselves to be in formation, we won’t be the same people we once were. Hopefully, that’s for the better. Like Joan Didion said, I know I was a very annoying 19 year old – and I was sure of who I thought I was back then. As another growth ring, and another form, our spirits form more fully, along with our character – even and especially if we no longer recognize who we once were.
I gave two common plans earlier. But maybe you’re not looking to get married, or to get married again. Or children aren’t in your future for social, biological, or economic reasons. When family doesn’t look like the way we were raised to imagine it, it can be the source of great pain. I know that grief is real and legitimate; it’s good to acknowledge it if it’s a source of pain for you. But I find for myself, that I have to check where is the real sense of loss for me, and where I’m feeling loss from not following that imaginary script. We all deviate from it, but we don’t all have to feel bad when we do.
Or maybe you’ve lived that script and enjoyed the fullness of it, and are now wondering, what next? What does retirement mean for me? Do I become less busy, or more? When I move to be closer to the grandkids, what will become of my long time friends that have meant so much to me? I think this is the hidden secret about the classic plan. Even when it’s full, and realized and meaningful, it doesn’t always offer the answers we may crave. At some point, we take a turn, and need to figure it out on our own or with our loved ones. So I’m cautious of plans. They may be a good framework for goals, but they aren’t full of a lot of answers. I wonder how often we follow those plans thinking they’ll have answers….
Why do we face change with such fear and trepidation? In hindsight, it’s probably obvious, but we do it time and time again, and in the moment forget, so it’s important to repeat. We’re growing older, or the world is less secure than I once imagined, or I’ve had enough grief in my life lately – those are all thoughts that are real and true and important to acknowledge. But sometimes, we try to avoid acknowledging change by lifting up the shield of tradition. It’s as if we imagine – if this other thing stays the same, everything else will as well. … but it doesn’t. Life is change. Life is newness, and letting go; day after day. And that’s beautiful and that’s hard. But change is here to stay; tradition or no tradition.
Can we be a little easier on ourselves when things don’t turn out as planned? Even if they really don’t turn out as planned can we still go easier on ourselves over it? Can we learn to assess and judge where we are in our lives without needing to compare it to our neighbor, or to our childhood and child-like dreams? To look at our own growth rings, and to know that we are who we are today from it all. When the day comes, if it hasn’t already, when you feel like your religious community wasn’t perfect in some way – can we be patient enough to remember that that’s an eternal truth for human community – we don’t do perfect? That’s probably a tradition with a capital T that we can not change – maybe the only one.
This heretical statement I’m about to make, is probably especially true this week, in light of the world we have endured. People don’t come here to be happy.Our purpose is not to make everyone happy. If happiness were the main goal, religion would have died out a long time ago, and with it, religious communities. We’re here to hold context, to offer a theological grounding for understanding the world, and to sustain us when our hearts have broken open with good and meaningful words.
Happiness may be an end result of our search, but striving to be happy usually ends in suffering. We cling for what was, or we grasp for what might be. Neither grant the genie’s wish.
Religious communities, in all our imperfections and our awkward dance between tradition and change, seek not to grant happiness, but to offer hope. That through all the turmoil and the hardship, we can remember the times of solace and joy. That change also brings us out of places of suffering. This pain we feel will someday go away. That the loss of a loved one, does not steal from us the times we shared together; that we are forever changed for knowing them, and the world is so too changed for our passing through. We give hope that this all means something. And it does. When I’ve known times of hardship, religious community has helped me ground myself and find my direction anew – before all the change and all the turmoil. But through that change, something new came about. And we’re living in that something new today. Listen for the sheer silencethat precedes the still small voice. For it will surely tell us a new way. And another growth ring forms.
I’m close with the words of Teresa Honey Youngblood we heard earlier in the service.“And yet, we carry a constancy: the still, quiet voice within that knows the difference between the window dressing and the big, wide, beautiful world beyond the window. We feed this wise little voice with prayer: breath, song, service, bare feet walking circles on the ground, slow-cooked soup, gentle gazes held when words fail.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/23/18. It looks at the meaning of Sukkot in our times of long periods of change and adversity.
Happy Autumn All! Where I grew up, we didn’t have a lot of birds in my neighborhood, so I’m a bit slow on the uptake, with all the new-to-me flying critters we’re coming to know out here in Huntington (even after over 5 years and counting.) And since we’ve planted more trees back on Earth Day, Cyprus and Birch, even more of a variety have been showing up this year. I’m slowly starting to see the patterns of which birds nest in our little corner, of the earth, each part of the year. Robins and Blue Jays, then the mockingbirds, then the orioles and goldfinches. And as it cools down, the blue jays return and duke it out with the squirrels, and at some point there’s a starling swarm that sounds like an alien invasion to my ear – that honestly terrified me the first time I heard it a few years back. The woodpeckers seem to know how to pace themselves though. Nature’s littlest migrants, finding shelter along the way – some they build for themselves, some left by other birds who have moved on, and some- these strange humans – provide. Some instinct calls them on, to warmer weather, and better days, to return someday along with the spring’s fullness. It can’t be all that easy, picking up and moving all the time.
This year Sunday also falls on the start of the Jewish Holiday of Sukkot. It’s an ancient harvest festival, where Jewish Pilgrims, back in the days of the temple, would return to the temple. It also hearkens back to the 40 years of wandering in the desert after freedom from Egypt. For Sukkot, there’s a practice of building small makeshift, temporary shelters, called Sukkuhs.
Back in my seminary days, my school, Union Theological, would collaborate with Jewish Theological seminary, which was training people to be rabbis and cantors. JTS was across the street from us – on the other side of Broadway and 122nd. (As it happens, on the other corner is the Manhattan School of Music, where our Music Director, Jie, studies for his doctorate.) A lot of the Union and Jewish Theological students took classes together, and folks swapped back and forth to attend certain faculty classes. But Union had one of the only (and I think theonly) internal garden courtyard in the city – that was surrounded on four sides and open to the elements. It was a perfect place to honor Sukkot while in the midst of the city that never sleeps. Students and faculty from both schools would build a sukkah large enough for 50 or so of us to worship under for our daily mid-day services.
The services would honor the transitional time of year; they would recognize our places of fullness, and they would remember how we were all lost and wandering in the desert in our religious past, and probably at some point in our own personal pasts. The religious story, is all our stories.
The word sukkah, refers to both the temporary shelters workers in the fields would use during the harvest season to remain out in the fields rather than make any long travels back home, in between days of working the harvest. It also referred back to the temporary shelters used in the Exodus story; some protective cover always had to be built, as a whole nation was traveling to a new land. On the long road of life, we find hardship and shelter in unexpected places. And as hard as it was in this ultimate story of perseverance, there was always a way to find a shelter along the way; even if you had to build it – with your neighbor.
As I was working on this sermon out on my back porch, a flock of geese were flying overhead. As a kid, geese were the perennial reminder of change, of migration, of cycles and patterns to me; nature’s eternal migrants. Over the last 30 years, we’ve built up a lot of suburban parks with lakes, and many geese don’t leave for winter anymore, but when I was a child it was different.
Always moving, always migrating, can be a lot of work. Some years ago, I was co-leading a youth week long leadership development school out in Summit, NJ. It’s a town not that different from Huntington. We used the true story of how geese migrate to teach some important lessons in leadership development, but it also applies to thriving in life. After we taught this lesson, the youth would roleplay being geeze in flight out on the town square – honking away!
Here’s what we taught – and all credit goes to our Goldmine Youth Leadership Schools:
“Geese go south before winter comes, to avoid the extra cold weather, and when they fly long distances they make a V formation in the sky.
Now, geese are very smart about some things. They know that they have to travel hundreds of miles to arrive safely at their winter nesting place, and this cannot happen by accident. They know by instinct how to keep their flock intact, how to work together to reach their goals.
Those high flying geese are like a religious community in many ways. They do three things in particular which make for success. These three things work well for the geese and they work well for us in our groups: Sharing The Lead, Keeping Company With The Fallen, and Honking From Behind.
First, Sharing the Lead.
Geese fly in a V formation because the wind rolling off the tips of one bird’s wings helps to hold up the bird just behind it. It is a basic principal of flying called aerodynamic up rush.The bird out in front, at the point of the V, has to work the hardest, of course, but not all the time. It leads for a while, and then rotates back, and another bird comes forward to take the lead. They share the lead and the work.
Our Unitarian Universalist groups work much the same way at their best. People take turns as leaders and many share the work. When we work closely together, the energy from one person keeps the others involved and refreshed.
Second, Keeping Company with the Fallen.
If a goose gets sick or is shot down by a hunter, often a mate or friend will fly down to the ground and sit beside the fallen goose. The partner tries to protect its fallen comrade and find food, and it will sometimes wait for as long as a week until both birds can fly again. Sometimes a bird gets tired and cannot keep up with the big V formation. It will drop behind, but is never left alone to fend for itself. Two or three other birds will fall back and fly just ahead of the tired bird, helping to hold it up and encouraging it along in a smaller V formation. The next time you see geese overhead, look for a large V and the several smaller V formations likely to be coming along behind.
In our UU groups there are many kind people who look out for those who may be tired or sick or in need. They give both attention and time, bringing food, sending cards and letters, or doing whatever else is necessary. Keeping company with the fallen is one more thing that geese and good group members have in common.
Third, Honking From Behind.
In every flock of geese, there are birds who take turns flying way at the back. They honk loudly and often, partly to encourage the younger geese and partly to keep them going in the right direction.
In our UU groups we have loud voices that call to us from the past. Voices like Clara Barton, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson – (we heard at length about one of those voices this morning – John Murray.) These are the voices of Unitarians and Universalists who loved our religion and built it up in the past. Their lives, their deeds, and their writings call out to us and encourage us to stay on course.
Religious educators and youth group advisors are other groups that honk from behind. They work mostly in the back rooms of the church building, calling out the value of Religious Education, teaching about life and Unitarian Universalism, and encouraging new generations to reach for their goals.
In any setting, each of us can take a turn honking from behind, to affirm those with whom we’re flying, so that we might all get where we want to go together and in good shape.
When you think about the groups that are important to you, remember the high flying geese. Like these smart and effective birds, people contribute greatly when they Share the Lead, Keep Company with The Fallen, and Honk From Behind.”
Thus ends the parable of the migrating geese, in V formation.
Whether it’s evidence in the natural world, or the wisdom teachings of scripture, there’s a resounding message through it all, that calls us not to go it alone. Meanwhile, wider culture tries to teach us to lift up our singular achievements; as if, the bigger, better, and farthest we can achieve on our own, the more impressive we are. It can be impressive, but life isn’t about being impressive. It’s a communal act of bringing us all along. (Maybe Tell Buddhist story of the table being a marker of all that is – about how life is a reflection of community.)
Ok, one more migratory metaphor; I’ve told this story once before, but let’s look at it in this newer light. Some years ago, I began using a Fit Bit. It’s this device you wear around your wrist that tracks how much walking you do (I’ve since upgraded – show watch); it estimates calories burned, and tracks the food you eat so long so you enter the food on a matching phone app. Besides encouraging you to hit certain goals around “steps-taken” every day, and keeping the calories down a bit if you want to, it plays to the conventional wisdom that if you’re attentive to what you’re doing and eating, you’ll be more likely to make better choices.
Although it’s been pretty effective in the first few weeks, and my dog loved how much more she got walked, it’s also created some comic moments and an interesting lesson or two. A few days in, the weather was pretty bad and I didn’t quite hit my 10,000 step goal (which is about 5 miles a day.) I found myself walking in circles throughout the house until I hit it. At home, Brian was laughing at me. I know it probably didn’t really count for caloric burn, but I figured if you’re going to make a purposeful commitment to something, you might as well not break it three days in.
I also learned that I walk about 3/4 of a mile every time I do the laundry. Between the back and forth up two flights of steps, folding and putting away, it’s actually a fairly intensive home chore. So if I’m running short on steps, I’ve been more religiously doing laundry – which is better than having Brian continue to laugh at me for walking in circles. Three and a half years later, this is still true.
Hardship in life, is often experienced as a kind of endurance run, many of us have to hold onto, over the long haul during periods of difficulty. Whether it’s illness, or accomplishing a meaningful goal like school, we sometimes think of these in terms of seasons and years. The other side of this though – is this step – and the next.
There’s a reason tools like Fit Bit set daily goals rather than monthly. If that device asked me to walk 150 miles this month, I think I’d laugh. But it’s the same thing I’m doing, by going five miles a day. We can only take it day by day. Yet, from time to time, we all force ourselves to look at a difficult time in our lives as that 150 miles. Our community has faced a lot of loss in our lives over the past few years. Loved ones have died. We’re supporting friends through prolonged periods of illness. Even surgeries that have gone well, take their toll, sometimes for a long time. We can’t wish away the grief, and not all disease will be cured. But we can let ourselves take it five miles at a time. We’ll still have to face the whole long road ahead, one way or the other, but we can give ourselves the gift of facing just the part that’s before us today. It’s the only stretch of the road we can ever face after all.
So how do we face it though, day by day? The common wisdom has a practical and a spiritual side to it. Practically, we have to handle what challenges and tasks are before us right now. Hospital visits have to be made. Dinner has to be cooked. And none of that changes if we’re overwhelmed by it all. Spiritually though, I think the proverbial take-it-one-day-at-a-time means something different. How do we find the place in our lives for the tenets I so often talk about: openness, mindfulness and reverence? Those three are central to much of my preaching, and they are no less important when we’re dealing with grief and loss.
Some of us know all too well the power of grief to narrow our vision. When we focus on the enormity of what’s before us, or what has just happened, we tend to close out everything else. The things that brought us joy or purpose, hope or laughter, seem so far away. Grieving is necessary. Grieving is healthy. But when when it closes us wholly to joy, or purpose or hope, it cuts off the very resources we need to find wholeness again. Openness is not just a principle, it’s a discipline. When we’re taking it one day at a time, spiritually, we look for the places of hope when hope is still a possibility. Or we look for the places of gratitude. We immerse ourselves in the time we still have with one another while it’s still here. Or we remember the joy someone brought into our lives. Love and joy are eternal; and we carry them with us into the world – touching life after life with their stirrings. But we remember that only when we’re still open. And maybe – just getting dinner done – is the only act of love we have in us. Somedays, that’s enough.
Mindfulness of what’s before us, and only what’s before us, can also keep the walls from pressing in. Yearning for something more, or better, can help us to strive to push through a hard time. But it can also paralyze us with wanting what may not be possible. We risk trading the time we have, or the world around us, for pain and loss over what will not be. It’s an impossible place to be. I’ve seen folks collapse before the sense of loss. And I’ve seen others smiling and laughing till their last hour – despite the pain. There’s no right or wrong – surely everyone’s situation is different. But I’ve found attending to what’s right before us, leaves more room for healing in our hearts and souls. And as Jesus taught, worry makes us live through something twice if it actually happens, or it makes us live through it once even though it never happened. Be present to the adversity before us, one step at a time; don’t stack up all the hurdles we’ll encounter along the way in front of you now.
The third tenet in this grouping – reverence – may be the soul saving part when we’re in deep grief or even deep depression. Grief and depression keep us focused on what we’re losing, or what we lost, or sometimes in the case of depression – what we only think we’ve lost. Again, there’s nothing wrong with grief – in fact it’s a healthy part of healing, and depression is not one’s own fault. Reverence calls us back to our birthright – life – for as long as we have it. In a universe of nigh infinite stars, the chance of you or me ever being here – in this place – with these people – is remarkable. To be born; to live; to find love or to know friends. Maybe to raise a family or to help someone in need. The chance of any of it having happened how it has, is just shy of impossible. And yet we are. When I grieve, I try to remember this. I try to hold the life I’ve been given with a sense of care and awe, because it deserves both. I try to remember to be grateful for the people I’ve known, and the lives I’ve changed, and how those lives changed mine. None of that is lost – ever. To remember, that just like there are people in my life who have mattered tremendously to me, there are people who I have so mattered to as well. None of that is lost.
When I’m at my worst, I’ve lost my sense of awe, and I yearn for a sense of reverence. This kind of yearning brings us back to our center. It also brings us back to our purpose. In popular culture, we often think of the spiritual as airy-fairy. I disagree. I find it grounding. I’m most myself, I’m most whole, when I’m grounded in that sense of awe for life, for the world around me, an awareness of the holy surrounding me. And that holiness, is within reach, every step of the way. The road may just be as long, and filled with just as much hardness, but its character changes along with our changing awareness. We just need to return to the next step before us with attention, and the rest may follow – Life calls us on.
Goldmine Youth Leadership School, Metro NY District 2012
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 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 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.”