Posts Tagged hardship
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 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 reflection was part of a multigenerational holiday service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/20/15. It talks about finding hope in times of hardship.
For three years now, I’ve celebrated the Winter Solstice at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This past Friday night, we went to see the Paul Winter Consort. Think classical music with a gospel singer, but with a global twist. Each year, guest musicians join them from around the globe. This year we heard from two Brazilian singers – in the style of basso nova and world-beat, along with an African-style dance troop with a whole lot of drumming.
The concert lives out the longest night of the year. The cathedral darkens as the moon rises and sets. Stars lighten the gothic ceiling. The classical instruments make you think whales are singing, and wolves are howling in the night. They even recreate a thunder storm with a combination of classical instruments and lighting. And the festive performance ends with the audience being invited into singing our own “Howl-alleiuh” chorus – with folks making wolf sounds of our own. But in the middle of the show, there’s an immense golden gong that gets lifted up the height of the cathedral – resounding and resounding – showing the lightening of days and the shrinking back of the night – as the sun rises once again from the darkest hour. It gives me hope and chills. And celebrating the Winter Solstice in such a multi-cultural way, honoring the music and art of people all across the world, feels especially healing, in these days of confusion and hatred for folks who are different. Joy in the face of fear is healing. Joy in the face of hatred, is saving.
This reminds me of a traditional folk tale: (tell story of “The Golden Ball.”)
Sometimes, when life gets routine, or boring, or maybe even rough, we see the amazing things in other people’s lives and wish we could have that. We can pine for brighter times and forget what gifts are right in our lives. The folk tale I just shared about the Golden Ball, reminds us that even as we look on into other people’s lives and see the shine and joy, other people may also be looking back into our lives and see something that shines all the same.
I look at our own community in these days of hardship in this season of joy. Our youth shared stories of hardship they have witnessed for people who are seen as different from others. Our own faith community teaches that every person matters, and that diversity is a spiritual value. I have felt worn down by many of the stories we hear in the world; but I am deeply heartened to know that we are part of a community that teaches these values of love, of justice, of compassion. I am deeply heartened by being part of a religious community that empowers our youth to speak love in the face of fear. We have a big shining golden ball hanging from our Fellowship windows, and there are people who look to us in wonder and gratitude. When you are feeling low or down and out before all the hardship of the world, take heart in that truth.
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 celebrates the message of Universal Salvation on the 245th anniversary of the birth of Universalism in the US. Learn to live with joy and love in ordinary time.
Several years back, I went on a retreat with 20 other Unitarian Universalists to Murray Grove, NJ. It’s a simple retreat center, about 2 miles from the ocean, that serves as a Universalist pilgrimage site. It’s the location where John Murray, founder of Universalism in the U.S. got stranded off a sandbar on his way to NYC from England in the year 1770. To recap the story in a few sentences: a local farmer, Thomas Potter, had built a church 10 years prior to house a Universalist preacher in the pulpit. …The problem was… there were no Universalist preachers yet in the U.S. It was either a case of extreme forward thinking, or merely fantastical wishing come true. The farmer Potter managed to convince the reluctant John Murray to preach the following Sunday should the wind not change by then, thereby freeing his boat. The wind didn’t change, and Murray did preach, and Universalism was born in America…. This is said to be the only recounted miracle in Universalist history.
So a couple hundred years later a few friends invite me to leave the barracks-like retreat center to go for a hike to the spot where Murray’s boat got stranded. I’m thinking, “sure… an easy walk through some forest and farmland to the ocean sounds lovely.” It’s sunny out, and a balmy 40 degrees. I run back to my room to put on better shoes – well sneakers without holes in them really, and my nice hand-crocheted scarf. I decide not to change out of my good jeans… and we’re off. The start of the walk is lovely, an easy trail through light woods. You couldn’t tell there’s a strip mall just off the road from where we started. The (first) time my running shoes break through the patch of snow hiding a thin veneer of frozen ice covering ankle deep water I vaguely recall the retreat director saying something about “everything should still be frozen over.” And I think, “oh, that’s what she meant.” Good thing those sneakers, the ones I had just bought that day, were black – or they’d really clash with the new shade of mud coating my good jeans.
This is the first teaching or challenge of the Universalist retreat center. Can a long-time city-boy keep his heart and mind on the beauty and indwelling-presence of the natural world, while caked in mud and soaked in frozen water? Can I push aside the thoughts of my colleague next to me giving me a lesson in how to treat tough-to-get-out stains, while focusing on the “now” I traveled 3 hours to get to encounter? Can I stop berating myself for packing so insensibly? Twenty minutes in, I realize after my crocheted scarf starts getting caught on thorns and 5 foot tall grass, that the “everything should still be frozen over” comment of the retreat director was a reference not to patches of ice, but to the frozen swamp that was the doorway to the ocean. I could hear Thomas Potter laughing as I realized that a century of untended farmlands, means that they’re probably not farmlands any longer. In New Jersey, most of the area surrounding the ocean eventually turns back to marshland when humans stop fighting it. And that was the trigger that woke me up – the absolute absurdity of unexpectedly trekking through an icy swamp in sneakers dressed as what another colleague labeled – “fashionista.” The mind turned off, and I could see the world around me again.
All month we’ve been reflecting on how better to be a people of invitation. We’ve mostly talked about welcoming the stranger, or welcoming people as they are, or being there for those in crisis or hardship. What would it mean to be such a people of invitation, when the person we’re welcoming is ourselves – as we are? What would it mean when we’re inviting the world around us – just as it is?
We often teach about mindfulness here. Sometimes, in the world of self-help books – the lessons around mindfulness can sound a bit too much like only something for the calm, peaceful and clean places in our lives. Teachings about mindfulness in the broader world are often all neat and tidy. But sometimes it’s more like my fashionista trek through a semi-frozen swamp. It’s tough to accept the world as it is, when you’ve come overdressed for a messy time in your life. How many of us are living through a messy time in our lives? …Troubles at work or with the checkbook, or a difficult time in one’s marriage, or maybe your schoolwork (or your kids’ schoolwork) is missing the mark… So often in life, we come ready for one kind of terrain, and realize it’s just simply not something we were prepared for. Striving to be a people of invitation can mean welcoming the world as it is, as best we can, and learn to face it – as it is – rather than what we want it to be.
The American movie consciousness often teaches us to struggle and strive and preserve until we win the world over to our wants and desires. Sometimes, that’s the right path, and sometimes it’s not. We can drain the swamps so I can have my precious nature hike –clean and tidy; or we can find a place of peace in the midst of the mess. We may have no control over the rough times in our lives, but we do have a choice over how we bring ourselves to and through those times.
I think of John Murray who birthed one thread of Universalism in the US. Before coming to the States, he lived in Ireland and England, and was a Calvinist minister. He spent some time in debtors prison, overwhelmed by medical bills after he lost his wife and child to illness. His brother finally bailed him out of debtor’s prison, and he forswore the ministry and preaching. He came to the US to (as he put it) “get lost in America” after such extreme crisis and loss in his life.
So when he got to that swamp in South Jersey, he was certainly not prepared to have a farmer tell him he was the answer to his prayers and it was time to get behind the pulpit again with a message of forgiveness and salvation for all – the Universal love of God. (And I’m sure learning that someone had built a church for him before he got there … was a tad off-putting to say the least…) Imagine the strength of character it takes to lose your family and home – to travel across the globe at a time when that was far from easy – and still believe that you are loved – by God, by Life – that you love enough to welcome hope back into your heart. I would be hard-pressed to imagine someone going through a worse crisis; yet he shows us that even despite all the things in our lives we have no control over, we still have a choice with our hearts… we still have a choice with our hearts.
Our reading earlier from the writings of Rev. Meg Barnhouse, “Joy in Ordinary Time,”(from her book Waking Up the Karma Fairy) reminds me of this choice that we have with our hearts. Do we lock away the Joy-titled perfume for that extra special day that may not come soon enough before the perfume evaporates on its own? Or do we lavish ourselves with the scent of Joy any chance we get? How long exactly is long enough to wait to start living our lives? How long is long enough?
What would it mean to be such a people of invitation – when the person we’re welcoming is ourselves – as we are? Can we extend grace and patience to the stranger when the stranger is our real selves? Can we allow ourselves to find hope again, after a period of great hardship? Can we be easier on ourselves than the world has been to us? And when our neighbor is learning to be themselves, can we learn to let them be, without critique or complaint?
The famous Universalist teaching is Hope not Hell. An all-loving God would never condemn anyone to lasting pain and misery in Hell. And the social implication – the religious lesson – is that we shouldn’t either. We shouldn’t contribute to keeping or putting someone into a Hell in their lives – whether that person is our neighbor, a stranger, or that person is oneself. It’s the 245 year old thread in our tradition that informs our social values today. As a gay man, I think of the many closets that each of us hides something away in year after year. When we pressure someone into silence, we never get to know them, and we create little pockets of Hell on earth.
Or, when a trans youth or adult shares their truth with the world, society too often builds wall after wall. Our faith teaches us to help that person make space for who they really are – not put questions or critiques before compassion – and that person may be ourselves. When we get barraged with xenophobic media trying to teach us that religions that look or sound different are inherently dangerous, Universalism reminds us of a God that loves all, and we are called to begin again and again in love.
As we come to the end of worship, our children and youth are working right now on an art project crafting rainbow flags. Sadly, we have several congregations in our nation who have been vandalized recently – with their publicly flown rainbow flags being torn down or burned. In some cases it’s the second or third time they’ve been vandalized. Our children and youth are learning today about the role of extending love universally and to support one another while doing such holy work. We’ll be sending some of these flags to those congregations who have been vandalized. We are all connected in this work.
We learned about the perfume Joy! Well, what if we kept the perfume Love on our dressers as well. Lavish it in ordinary time. Don’t wait till someone proves themselves enough to warrant cracking it open. Love does not need to be something we wait forever for the right time to wear it on our sleeves and in our hearts. We are not less for being profligate with either joy or love; but our days are diminished when we horde them. It is ok to invite them into our lives. It’s ok to welcome our true spirits – as we are – to be with our neighbors – as they are – in ordinary time.
This sermon was preached on 5/31/15 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY. The parable of the three trees teaches us how to move through hardship, and accept Grace, when it finally comes. It speaks to the times when we haven’t caught up once more with the good in the world after a period of difficulty.
We have three trees in our backyard; a dwarf japanese maple, a dwarf breed of magnolia and a dogwood tree. Trees are gentle creatures that each have their own needs and habits. People far wiser than I tell me this, so I’ll believe them. But after this past year, I’m starting to see it myself. Our Japanese maple originally grew in our front, right up against the house. I think it was planted there when it was a bit smaller and the previous owners didn’t realize how broad they could grow. We transplanted it to our backyard where it would have more space and realized the back half of it had branches that were stripped bare of any leaves. You see, no sun had reached the back half of the tree where it was pressed up against the house, and the leaves simply stopped growing there.
It was a rough winter, and the other two trees appeared to have a hard go of it as well. Our Magnolia tree is evergreen. Regardless of how cold and stormy the winter was, the tree remained defiant against the season and stayed green throughout. The dogwood tree, on the other hand, probably had a few too many years of being left untrimmed, and was starting to have long spindly branches. It was basically growing mostly straight up and not out at all. We had to have them trimmed back, and as the winter came, all the leaves fell away and it looked like a tall, lanky stick. By winter’s end, the defiant magnolia, with its thick green leaves in the midst of winter, finally was worse for wear; it’s leaves had mostly turned brown from the frost. It was a sad looking backyard for a bit; a spindly dogwood, a brown magnolia and a dwarf maple, which we were unsure whether half of it’s foliage would ever grow back.
These three trees remind me of each of us, at different points in our lives, when we’re faced with an extended period of hardship. As Spring came around, the replanted japanese maple, regrew all its leaves. It had done fine enough in a corner with sunlight only reaching half of itself, but when it moved to a place with more light, it was able to grow to its full self. Sometimes, when we’re stuck in a place that doesn’t feed us, we need to move. And if we’re too deeply rooted in such a place, sometimes we have to rely on friends, or companions, to help us find a new path – we can’t always handle it all ourselves.
The magnolia tree was stalwart, and unrelenting in the face of the snows and ice. It wasn’t going to allow itself to hold back, or hunker down, regardless of what the world threw its way. And as a result, most of its leaves were totally brown and dying, or withered and most lost. As we approach June, with fertilizer, warm sun and lots of water, the beginnings of new leaves have started to bud. The tree will live, but it’s inability to take cover under adversity, made it slow to flourish when Spring newness and ease came its way. It reminds me of all of us, in those times when we decide to perpetually push forward, never giving ourselves rest or respite from the hard days. Not only can we burn out, and dry up, but when the days of ease come along, it often takes four times as long to recover than it would have if we took each day, pace by pace. The magnolia reminds me, we sometimes need to find our “off switch”, because without it, we may take a very long time to find our center and our vitality again.
The dogwood tree (next slide please), is doing great. It went from spindly, and bare to broad and full. That tree got trimmed back when it was time, and let itself lose its leaves rather than spend the energy to keep them green when they wouldn’t do the tree any good. As scripture says, “to everything there is a season.” Interestingly, the dogwood tree was the worst looking tree at the start of the winter season, and it’s the best looking as Summer approaches. We can feel thin and drawn out in the moment, but cutting back, and hunkering down for a time, may be all that we need to get through what might feel impossible at the time. We don’t perpetually have to be our best selves; sometimes being just ourselves, is the best thing for us in the long run.
Notably, the dogwood, the tree that was the most run down and bare, is the only tree our puppy goes to for shade in the hot days when she can’t handle the direct sun beating down on her but she still wants to enjoy the grass. When we’re weak, there may always be a day ahead of us when our strength is something we can give again to another in need.
The poem, “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, I read earlier, reminds me of this parable of the three trees I just gave. For many of our graveside services in our memorial garden, that poem is one I often read. Mary Oliver is certainly one of our great poets. Here is a brief excerpt from a few lines: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.” We even have those words in our hymnal. I usually hear those words calling us to remember to live life fully, with the people precious to us, while we’re here. And to give us permission to continue living with meaning and purpose after our loved ones are gone.
After a time, what we’re holding onto is no longer that which we loved so dearly. After too long, healthy grief can turn into something that makes us hold onto our hardship instead. No one else can ever tell any of us how long is too long, and deep loss may never fully go away. But there comes a time for all of us when holding onto the deep sense of loss becomes too much, rather than healing. We may need to hibernate for a time within our hearts, but when the season turns, the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and to those we so dearly miss, is to allow ourselves to grow green once more; to wake to another Springtime.
Sometimes hardship lasts a long time. As the story of three trees attests, we had one bruising winter, and it’s not just hard on the plants, it’s hard on our spirits. More seriously, our Fellowship has endured an almost two year long span of time, where we lost too many members or immediate family member to death. It can be too much to bare. We experience loss individually acutely; but we also experience grief collectively. And this does not happen in isolation. We hear stories of neighborhoods across our nation in crisis and riot. We know our soldiers are still abroad, and have been for too long a time. May all who serve return safely, and may we find new ways to bring peace into this world.
Can we imagine our theme this month of beauty, and wonder what would it mean to be a people of beauty, in light of long hardship and grief? It can mean giving one another space through the difficulty. It can mean helping a friend replant themselves in a better spot with more warmth and more light. It might mean, giving ourselves the time and care to slow down and to hunker down so that we can come through to the other side sane and whole and ready to be ourselves once more. It can mean not trying too hard to stay too strong when we really need to lean on another. All of these things can be ways to be beautiful in the world in the face of loss and adversity.
But eventually, and always, the season turns, and hardship gives way to grace. When we let it, it’s a beautiful gift. But we don’t always let it; we don’t always accept the new times when they come. Accepting Grace can be a spiritual discipline for a people of beauty. When the wheel turns from hardship to newness, beauty unfurls in corners we may have forgotten to look for when grief or hardship refocused our vision. But beauty, or life, or newness is there – ever reminding us to ‘hold what is mortal to our bones as if our life depends upon it’ but not so long that we can’t ever let it go.
Hardship, in any of its many forms, can turn into something we hold onto. Maybe grief isn’t your burden; maybe adversity is the thing you can’t seem to shake. We may never like it, but it can be like my Magnolia tree that only knows how to stay at its fullest, even in the worst of times. I will be stalwart and see this through because that’s who I am. We can sometimes wear hardship as a badge. Pushing people away who might hold us up during this time.
Or maybe our challenge is sharing with everyone we know just how busy we are – I know I’m not alone with that challenge – as if busyness were a noble medal to shine and pin to our jackets. I think our corporate or consumer world teaches us this un-virtue – that busyness is a good thing to have. Maybe beauty is found in being less full all the time. Maybe it’s found in not becoming identified, in our spirits, with the adversity before us, or the busyness we enter and reenter into again and again. Maybe the struggle is real, and must be honored; maybe it helps us to grow into the people we are, but can we do that without also letting the hardship name us with its own words – as its own.
But Grace comes. That which we have done nothing to deserve, but feeds and nourishes us all the same, ever comes again and again. Winter turns to Spring. We each find new homes in the most sudden of places. The job comes around, or the grief weighs just a little less heavy on our hearts than the day before, or we find the strength to put down that bottle of liquor – finally. We often think of these things in terms of willpower or endurance. Sometimes they are. But I think just as often, maybe more often, something just turns in the world or in our hearts, and newness is before us in the places where habit and hardness once resided and all the world is different. Grace.
May we be people of beauty. May we learn to be gentle with one another never knowing what burdens our neighbors carry silently next to us. May we find ways to see Grace when it comes sudden before us, and grant us the strength to accept its gifts – especially on those days when we have become so adjusted to a world of hardness and hardship. May another way be found, and may we have the wisdom to take it when it comes.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Trust
As Winter finally gives way to Spring,
may we pause before another turning of the wheel.
Some of us are wrestling with hardship after hardship,
illness, loss of work, loved ones gone from our lives.
Teach us ways to trust in the possibility and the newness of hope;
may the lessons of the living world show us a path toward a new day,
with the ice and the frost – in our past – not forgotten –
but not in control of our path.
Some of us have allowed the Spring to make us gardeners of our spirit,
planting seeds beneath the surface,
like little moments of grace for passersby,
who have done nothing themselves to earn such a small gift of beauty, of life.
May we all be stewards of such hope,
and aware of the gifts that spring up unbidden, and uncontrolled,
where-ever odd and sudden place they may so come.
Mother of Trust, remind us in the fallow times,
that we have come this far, and deep down,
we know everything we need to know,
to move through the times of unease.
Change happens suddenly, and often,
event though breath to breath may feel like eternity.
When the crush of pressure and stress feels too much to bear alone,
teach us to lean on others in our life,
for to each of us comes such time.
And when we have the strength to spare,
may we give, what was once given to us, freely and fully,