Posts Tagged loss
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/5/17. As the Christian world enters the season of Lent, we will reflect on what choices we make that open our spirits through vulnerability. This service also opens our reflections for Women’s History Month.
In the Christian calendar, we’ve entered into the season of Lent. For some of us, Tuesday night was a night of celebration, before 40 days of fasting. For my own Lenten practice, I’ve given up excesses. I’m eating less, going to bed sooner, very limited alcohol – those sorts of changes. I’m reflecting a lot on mortality, sacrifice, purpose and meaning. Ash Wednesday is the most humanist practice in the Christian liturgy; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s a time to reflect on the vulnerability of life. There’s a sense of atonement to the sacrament, but one where it’s more about returning to right perspective rather than seeking forgiveness.
This past Wednesday, had an odd end to it for me. A week or so ago, we came upon a pair of tickets to Sunset Boulevard on Broadway, when a friend wasn’t going to be able to go to see it after all. The audience clearly found it riveting, enjoyable and fully engaging. Maybe seeing the musical on Ash Wednesday itself, affected how I saw it, but I found the story of an aging starlet re-living her bygone days of fame, thoroughly horrifying. There’s a classic dialogue that sums it up, “You heard him. I’m a star.” “Norma, you’re a woman of 50, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25.” “The greatest star of them all.”
Now, for the record, I forgot that the Norma Desmond character was only 50 years old – I may have gasped out loud when her age was given. At 41, I can’t imagine feeling like she does in less than a decade from now. She becomes a metaphor for the worst excesses and demands we place upon women; and she in return tragically becomes a caricature of herself. It’s not a story of hope; but one of mortality, lost purpose, and misguided sacrifice – sacrifice that only serves to lift up another’s ego. It’s a cautionary tale, and a critique against our culture of excess, of idealizing youth. It tries to teach us not to box in women, with our impossible standards.
Norma Desmond, despite being known as “the greatest star of them all” in yesteryear, she was a star in the days of the silent screen. She was beautiful, she was captivating, she was young, but she never got to speak a word. Brené Brown, an American scholar, author, and public speaker, who is currently a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has her own words that seem to speak directly to this. “Even to me the issue of “stay small, sweet, quiet, and modest” sounds like an outdated problem, but the truth is that women still run into those demands whenever we find and [risk using] our voices.”
…Risk using our voices… All this month we are reflecting on what it means to be a people of Risk. Our children and youth have risked putting their art on display in our galleries, where I hope they will learn the lesson of stretching into their talent, and I hope our adults share their compliments with our artists whose names are on our walls. Not to be quiet, sweet or small, but big, and present, and central to the life of our community. Being a people of risk, means creating spaces for each of us to grow, and to challenge ourselves. It’s the central message behind our third principle where covenant to accept each another and encourage on another toward growth.
Religiously speaking though, how does risk – how does vulnerability -open our spirits to newness, to life? Love and loss – two sides to the sometimes hard lessons of risk in our lives; to love something or someone, knowing that some day we will all face grievous loss. As the poet Anne Sexton’s words we heard earlier in the service, “when you face old age and its natural conclusion, your courage will still be shown in the little ways… and at the last moment when death opens the back door you’ll put on your carpet slippers and stride out.” Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust; but what comes in between birth and death is worth fully living, without our focus lost on what may come, or what once was.
History is vital, sometimes life-saving, and crucial to our cultural heritage. But when history turns into Norma Desmond’s grieving yesteryear, it ceases to be history; it becomes a prison of the spirit. Sometimes we are faced with loss, powerful and hard. And sometimes our grief is more ‘50 wanting to be 25’; (as if we were actually fully happy all the time at 25.) To return to other words from Brene Brown, “I’ve found what makes children happy doesn’t always prepare them to be courageous, engaged adults.” Now 25 isn’t childhood, but at any point in our lives this statement can be true. What makes us happy doesn’t always prepare us to be courageous and engaged. Love and loss – come hand in hand onto life’s stage – and ask us to live while we can with all the pain, and the joy. Hiding from the ashes in our lives, sometimes is a seemingly necessary coping mechanism… and Lent invites us to face what we might otherwise not be ready for, with humility, with sacrifice; for purpose, with meaning.
We see this in the wider living world too. I’ll speak of this in more detail later in the month when I’ll devote a whole service to the Recklessness of Spring; but I’m thinking of gardens as we are seeing a disturbingly early Spring. As Beth Feldman and her team get our community garden ready to grow food for the town’s food pantry, I’m doing work on my own home garden. We had a lot of wild grasses in flowerbeds outside our windows that although browned over the winter, remained whole through March. I didn’t really want to cut them back; they are beautiful in their own way, and helped to keep my spirits up during the winter months that are so hard on many of us. But if they’re left whole, a strong rain can force the soil to sort of get bogged down like a swamp. It’s best for the plant to cut it back, and have it grow anew come Spring – otherwise it risks rotting from the inside and dying. I miss how my windows look, even though I know they’ll come back again soon. But to everything, there is a season, and that is as true for us, as it is true for the rest of the natural world. We are no different.
Change – the hardest spiritual truth. When communities slowly adjust to the times, we can get in the habit of critiquing anything different by labeling it “change” – as if that in itself makes it bad or wrong – even if the change is slow coming, well thought out, and well discussed. It’s the universal buzzword to end all debate – the worst 4 letter word.
As some of you know, I’m an avid sci-fi and fantasy reader. I’ll find a new author and work through all their works before moving onto the next. Octavia Butler is my latest find. Somehow, I’ve missed her work till this year, but she’s increasingly being covered in English Literature classes. I’m reading through her “Parable of the Sower” right now. She’s a prominent author, and one of the few Black sci-fi writers to break into the genre, and she’s clearly one of the best writers I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Her writing is as much theology as it is sci-fi. Without ruining the plot, especially since I am still working my way through her writing, I want to share a little of her theology that I find translates universally to be true. Here are 4 short points, that I’ll share, and then I’ll talk a little more about them: 1) “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth, is Change. God is Change.” 2) “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” 3)“We’ll adapt. We’ll have to. God is Change. Strange how much it helps me to remember that.” 4) “Drowning people sometimes die fighting their rescuers”
The first quote: “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth, is Change. God is Change.” Some of us are most familiar with this teaching in the Buddhist context, where our attachment to things not changing only leads to suffering since all things change, and attachment to what can not be – is painful. The Serenity Prayer is a more modern version of this spiritual lesson: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” There are things we can change, things we can affect in our lives, and there are many things that we cannot. Love and Loss – to face each as they come is one of the hardest lessons.
But for Octavia Butler, she’s looking at this message a little differently. Change for her is sometimes like a rock banging against an object. All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you.” The rock can break another rock, or a window, or maybe a door; but the rock will probably also break at least a little itself, as it comes up against what it changes. Change always happens in relationship – it’s never isolated. That’s probably part of the reason that is feels so difficult in community, because all the relationships are even more pronounced and obvious – it can feel like the change is compounding upon itself. And during this season of Lent, we’re reminded in even more vivid ways, that every little change can begin to point us toward the biggest of changes in life – ashes to ashes. We all feel that worry at some time in our lives.
The next two theological quotes speak for themselves: “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” And “We’ll adapt. We’ll have to. God is change.” But Butler poignantly teaches us that, “Strange how much it helps me to remember that.” We can catch ourselves always focused on the worst, or on the end that changes bring, but there’s a deeper spirituality found in the practice of remembering that change is at the very foundation of our being. We can forget that we come into this world in an act of tremendous change – that all that is and will ever be – comes from change. Change is also our birthright, and there is a solace we can find in that when we open ourselves to that truth. (maybe tell the short Buddhist parable of the drop of water in the wave.)
Lastly, “Drowning people sometimes die fighting their rescuers.” The novel “The Parable of the Sower” is a spiritual novel, but it’s also a political one. I’ll let you read that part of it on your own, but there’s a line that’s meant to be political during a time of crisis, that I also read it as spiritual. People will find “a tyrant we fear or a leader we follow.” Leaving the politics aside, Change can be either. In our seasons of love and loss, we can see Change as a tyrant to fear, or a leader to follow. How we accept the changes before us, how we open our hearts to vulnerability, determines where our spirits will lead us. Will we see Change as always and forever a tyrant – and experience more suffering for it, or will we understand Change to be a leader that we can learn from as we live into a new day? Love and loss: For Butler, “We are the life that perceives itself changing.” On some days we may wish it otherwise for the grief that it brings us, but self-awareness also allows us to experience love in our life; the spiritual truth that they come hand in hand.
Change is in a way, the great rescuer, even if we find ourselves flailing to keep it from taking us where it is going to take us. The great losses – of life and health – are the things we have no power over – we can only grieve and hope some day to heal our hearts enough to carry on. But so often, we take the small losses and confuse them as the great ones – and we lessen ourselves for it – we risk drowning in the water while we fight our rescuers.
I’ll close with the words of a former minister of mine, Rev. Forrest Church, who frequently taught that religion is the awareness of the dual nature of being born, and knowing that will some day die. As we begin our road to Easter, we do so in ashes. “We are the life that perceives itself changing.” May we hold a fondness for that which we love, that which once was, and may we leave our spirits open for what may yet still come. The act of living is to be vulnerable; may we all so live.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/04/16. For many of us, this time of year can challenge us with times of sadness while others are feeling joy. How can we be present to our ourselves, and each other during such times?
When I was growing up, we used to wonder if we’d have a White Christmas. It didn’t mean to us, will it snow in December, only will it snow on Christmas. Of late, we seem to be perennially wondering when winter will start. This year I think it was December 2nd before I realized that October was over. One recent Thanksgiving, I remember dodging a late waking bee for about two blocks with my bags swinging foolishly in the air. Somehow I managed not to get stung; but the bee had a tenacity that matched the spirit of early autumn’s lingering warmth. The seasons seem a bit mixed up, and neither I, nor that bee, had a good sense of what time of year it was supposed to be.
The long-lasting warmth has made for a really odd season for me. Beach worthy weekends in late September; trees that stayed green, well into November; and the last of the yellow leaves seemed to only fall in the last day or two. I swear our trees here still had leaves on Wednesday. All having the cumulative effect of letting the winter holidays sneak up on me unprepared. Although the drug stores had Christmas decorations for sale two weeks prior to Halloween, somehow I dodged hearing a Christmas tune until two days ago when I accidentally changed the station to the 24-hour Holly Channel.
…When did we stop being kids…? It wasn’t when we turned 18, I’m sure of that. How old were you when you first realized you let slip something that your inner child never would or could have? … What were you doing when trembling anticipation first became sedate? … Was it when your first kid left the house? Or when a sibling passed away? Or was it when you realized you were still single well past the ages your parents had you? Or maybe you’ve figured the secret to eternal youth for your inner kid. (If so, bottle that and hand it out at coffee hour weekly please.) …Are we OK with the change in timbre in our quaking soul, or do we try not to look at it aside from the corners of our vision?
To a certain degree, we grow older, and we need to mature. Life’s experiences grant us insight, wisdom into the borders of things; borders like the dual edge of anticipation and obsession. We need the more sober view of the passing of years in order to measure out and balance all the difficulties, joys and complexities of life as adults. For many of us, this becomes the Blue Season, while the rest of the world seems to be full of joy.
But I wonder what else comes with putting our inner kid to bed. Does a certain part of us go to sleep as well? Do we lose our sense of wonder? Do we close ourselves a bit too much to everyday magic and awe? Do our views and perceptions become too jaded, … too practical, … too starchily useful? I think it’s the fastest way to let bone weary exhaustion set in: Exhaustion in the existential sense – tiredness with the passing of the seasons and cycles; rather than rejuvenation from the rebirth of times and holidays.
In traditional earth-based spirituality we will soon be crossing through Yule – the winter solstice. It’s a holiday that directly faces this perennial existential challenge. It’s a time of reflection, of new beginnings. Matching the symbolic birth of the Sun as our daylight hours only become longer and longer with each passing day following Yule, it’s a holiday that asks us to consider what we hope to rebirth in our lives. It asks us to rebirth our spirit in the face of the cold long night. I’d like to share with you a poem a friend of mine has written for Yule. I find it to speak really well to the challenge this season poses for so many in the face of all the merry and cheer. It’s entitled, “The Bare Bones of Winter” and it’s written by Elisabeth Ladwig:
“Out in the darkest night, the longest dark, appear the whitest stars against a black sky, joining the Moon in seasonal ritual of shadowcasting on the untouched snow. Magickally they manifest: Silhouettes of skeletons that shiver with the wind’s chill. To the maple I want to offer my warm coat, and to the sycamore, the linden, the oak. Come, follow me! My door opens to the bare bones of Winter… But unforeseen enters the evergreen, clothed in angelic light, greeting reverence with a promise… Of rebirth.”
Those trees that were holding onto their leaves this year tenaciously, are now just bare bones outside our windows and along our walks – If we could but give them our coats to keep warm against the chill. Which among us this year relate more to the bare trees than the charitable jolly-old traveler with arms full of generosity? Have we held on long enough to our last vestiges of yellow and orange, or is the silhouette an all-too familiar feeling come December?
This poem gives me a new sense of the evergreen, of the Christmas tree. To be fair, it’s less new than a better pointing back to a very ancient meaning. It reminds us there’s another spirit we can clothe ourselves with. There’s a way to feel full beneath the wheeling of the seasons – A lit path to rediscover awe and reverence. It shines hidden behind the packages, the obligations, the commercials, the packed Home Depots and Targets and Barnes and Nobles on Christmas Eve. We make a practice of bedecking the greens and the halls with festive, and color, and light to make certain we remember to find a place for awe and wonder in our everyday spaces: To craft rooms where we can once more Fa-La-La lest we forever Ho-Hum. We do this in community because every year some of us will be able to sing the Fa-La-La, while some otherwise would only be able to mutter softly the Ho-Hum.
It’s an increasing challenge for me each year. Several years back my parents and I agreed to stop the crush of present giving this time of year. There were a bunch of reasons why we did so, but the most obvious was one year when we finally hit the point of spending Way-To-Much. The gift-giving truce has been an awesome thing for me. My husband and I finally had that talk after 6 years of also doing the Way-To-Much. I don’t spend December fretting over the craze of consumerism; and for my family it’s finally simply about being together; something the holiday never really meant growing up – at least not that I ever saw or maybe just didn’t realize as a kid.
Lighting our trees, warming our hearth fires, decking our halls could be a sign that gift-giving is coming. It can also be the gift itself: The lit pathway to the secret of a spirit reborn. A metaphor that maybe our leaves can remain green this winter; and what a glorious gala celebration that could be for our inner kids who might have been long at slumber.
Life is about the attentive pauses. Not so much about the breaks, or the rest, or the relief. Those are very important too, but not it. Life is about the moments of gratitude, the times of awareness. The world continues spinning, the dancers continue dancing, the cat is still climbing in your face for attention but we are there to appreciate it, though we know not where that place is. Some of us will call it mindfulness. Others may call it gratitude. The less spiritually-inclined might simply call it paying attention; the poet’s “still point” – the lack of motion within every motion.
Allegorically speaking, the story of the birth of Jesus is about this too. A star shines bright in the clear sky. The kings get off their thrones; the wise men gather gifts to bear; the shepherds leave behind their flocks for a short time. Something great has just occurred. Where did it occur though? In some great exciting place? Were there alarms, or sirens, or flashing party lights? No. In the hidden recesses of a dirty manger, amongst the animals of the field. In the most everyday of places, the birth of hope was to be found. All that is, is held within the ordinary, the mundane. Only our perception cracks open its meaning; our appreciation makes all the difference.
One bit of advice I give people as we’re planning for the Winter Holidays and Holy Days relates to this – especially when the holidays have become The Blue Season for you. We can really get lost in all the work we do leading up to a Christmas Party or a Fellowship pageant, all the logistical bits—the party, the caterer, the decorations, the animal costumes, the instrumentalists, the ceremony, the guest list, and so on. As with all things in life, we can let them drive us crazy. However, they can also be an intentional way of reminding us that for that short span of time, we should be fully present. We commit all this time, energy, and focus to the planning of a very short event. It’s a way of reminding us that that joy, that celebration, is worthy of spending the time on it. What happens in the small moment of that candle being lit while singing Silent Night, is that important. Personally, I sometimes imagine all that effort is somehow condensed in the moment. The still point in the turning world.
And it’s those moments between the moments (to now brazenly quote T.S. Eliot) that we can return to for solace, for energy, for inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. (Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to go to work or school knows the difference between rest and renewal.) The still point is about coming back to our place of renewal, stopping so that we can start once more with fresh purpose and meaning.
In the holiday season we stop, we celebrate the return of light, and the turning of the world. We pause to share time with our families, our friends, or just find some quiet time away from the frenetic New York minute. And we begin again.
We begin again as our full selves—or as close to our full selves as we can muster. The spiritual work of this season isn’t about figuring out how to lose the 10 pounds we gained from the eating over the holidays—although that’s important too. It’s not about resolutions on how to get control of our lives once more after a month of celebratory abandon—although that might be needed as well. The religious call asks we begin again doing the work of striving to make the world a more safe, a more just, a more sane place for the migrant in the manger, for those oppressed and seeking a miracle for even more than 8 days and nights. If we do that work, the rest will follow.
The rest will follow because our priorities will be set. The need for the next thing, the distraction, the party, whatever that thing is that we feel we’re lacking, which in reality is not essential—that will sift lower in our values when we’ve set the spiritual work of the season as our essential. The rest will follow when we accept that the distraction, or the crippling addiction we feel helpless before, or the petty grievance we keep at our forefront are not essential to who we are. They are what keeps us from ourselves, not what actually define us.
Mystically speaking – The moment in the manger; the moment we realize there’s enough lamp oil to illuminate all we ever could dream of, that the days will get longer, that the world will continue to spin; the moment we pause to appreciate the Holy in our lives; the moment we pause to recognize the powerless and the meek for their own worth; the moment we stop in awareness of the breadth of life—that moment informs all the rest. That moment of stillness gives the dance meaning and makes it possible. Life is not a series of disconnected moments strung together with only the meaning we lend it. Life is encountered in the flow between stillness and movement. The renewal is of the spirit, rather than the resting of the body.
Our hymn following this homily is a classic Christian reinterpretation of the Yule-time spiritual message. “In the Bleak Midwinter” the earth is as hard as iron and water is like a stone. Even though the version we’ll sing was re-crafted probably in the 1990’s, the lyrics still evoke a sense of barrenness. The bleak world outside reflects the inner world of our spirit; where the Christian Saviour is but a homeless stranger bringing the hope of the world in the most everyday of places – the setting of wood slats and strewn hay. Can we take a moment in our minds to deck those bare walls with garlands gay and singing? Can we take that message and that image with us in the year to come? Can we be-speckle the corners of every dry spirit we come into contact with, especially if it’s our own? Can we let our neighbor help us? Can we offer ourselves that wondrous gift before the trembling bare bones of winter?
As many of us who feel the draw; coming together in a shared spirit; singing for feeling, for joy, for camaraderie. We’ll sound just as wonderful as we let our hearts be large for one another. Allow yourselves now to be present through the cadence of song. Will you please join with me now, rising in body or spirit, and sing hymn #241, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/1/15 as part of our annual Dia de los Muertos service remembering the lives of those who have passed. It’s written for a child-friendly gathering.
It’s always important to learn from our own history and culture as well as the cultures of those who may be different than us. But I think it’s especially important these days, in light of certain people in our country sometimes disparaging folks who may be different, to lift up the strength and values we find in difference. Dia de los Muertos, is a sacred tradition in Mexican communities where we celebrate the life of our ancestors. We often feel grief after someone dies. This holy day doesn’t say we can’t still grieve, but it does teach us to try to celebrate the life of those who were so important to us. Our ancestors live on, in a way, through us – and that is a good reason to celebrate.
This time of year, we remember those we loved who are no longer with us. Earlier, we read the names of those who have died since our last Dia de los Muertos service. It has been a very hard year for our Fellowship, with someone in our community facing such a loss about ever 3 weeks. In my own life, Brian and I have lost two friends in the past two months – both around our own age. With the loss so recent, it can be very hard to get to that place of celebrating the people who touched our lives. In some ways, I can’t yet. I just want to say that because I know everyone will come to this service from a different place, and I want to honor that. But in some ways I can; I can celebrate the laughs, and the lessons, and the hard times we got through, and the easy times we enjoyed. I can celebrate getting to carry a piece of their heart in mine, and maybe, hopefully, figuring out how to share that piece of their heart with you – day by day. And that is a reason to celebrate, to dance, to smile for what once was, and what will never really go away. Love is eternal, and we show it through the pieces of our hearts we give to one another. We can still do that, even when our hearts may still be broken. The human heart is a miracle in that way.
All this month we will be reflecting in worship, in our religious education classes, and in our journey groups, on what would it mean to be a people of ancestors? It’s kind of an odd question because in some ways, regardless of what we do, we are all a people of ancestors. We all come from someone, and that never really goes away. But the spirit of the question is really about, what would it mean if we lived knowing we come from those before us, and maybe live on in their name.
How do we live differently when we keep in mind the people we love, and who loved us? Are we kinder? Are we more forgiving? Do we want to be our best selves in light of what they meant to us, or did for us? We do that with our family or friends in our lives every day. I know when I’m doing something that will get picked up by the news, or when I post something to Facebook or Huffington Post, that my parents may someday see it or read it. I never quite know when they’re going to pay attention, (or find their way to the internet), but I know it could happen at any time. So I try to speak and act publicly in a way that keeps them in mind. My parents are still around – thankfully – but I think it still counts for living in such a way that I remember the people that came before me, who lifted me up, and helped me along life’s path.
… I want to tell you a story now. It’s called “A Lamp in Every Corner.” It’s written by Janeen Grohsmyer, a UU and published in a book of short stories under the same title, and it speaks to this in a different way.
I think about Zora’s lantern from time to time. This story reminds me of a UU summer camp on Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine, that some of us here goto. It’s a Summer camp for children, youth and adults. I’ve gone for years, although I haven’t had a chance to go recently. Every night, the last events are evening worship. People line up outside and are given a lantern, and they walk up a stony path to a small chapel and light the way with those lanterns. The chapel itself has no electricity, so the lanterns help everyone see each other while sitting or singing in worship. Have you ever been in worship at night, lit only by fire? I know many of us here have who have attended Fahs Summer camp, or maybe you’ve been to a youth con where this happens. It’s a special and powerful feeling, especially in a world of lightbulbs and smart phones and video games. Going back to natural fire for light can feel magical, right?
I think there’s a way that’s true for going back to our roots, or our source, when we remember living in the light of the people who came before us. The world can be very modern, and shiny, and new sometimes, but there’s something special and powerful about remembering where we came from – and who we came from. The lights can still shine around us, whenever we remember to mindfully reach over for the lantern hanging from the hook and carry it with us consciously.
And some of our ancestors weren’t just a light we can see by. Some of them helped build those churches and congregations that came before us. Some of them nailed the lantern hooks to the walls; some of them built the lanterns we carry today. I look around this room and remember that this main hall was not always here. The chalice on the wall behind me was built by Les Swan. These lecterns and chalices were hand-crafted with love and care. When we’re a people of ancestors, we don’t just come to this space and see 4 walls, red chairs, a rug and wooden lecterns. We see pieces of our history that frame who we are, where we’ve been, and imagine where we may some day go. We live into this religious community remembering the people before us, and hopefully, we bring our best selves – hoping to live in the light of those who came before, and making way for those who will some day take our place. And we make something beautiful through it.
There’s a buddhist parable that’s like this. Some of you have heard this before, which means it’s a great story to share again… (tell story of the drop of water and the wave.)
I love this story. I’m a huge beach-goer, and I think of it often when the sun is glaring off a gorgeous wave, rising and falling. The waves come and go, and gift a certain beauty and character to the ocean that wouldn’t be the same without their passing through. Each of us will be ancestors, or role models, or the hope for another’s heart. May we be so with gladness in our eyes, and a fullness in our hearts for those who helped us along the way.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/25/15. It reflects on pop culture’s fascination with “Back to the Future” Day on October 21st and what that teaches us about change.
If you watch the late night talk show circuit, or read Facebook, or follow the stories that get covered over and over again on the internet, then you might have heard something this week about the old movie, “Back to the Future 2.” In the movie, they famously traveled forward in time 30 years to the date, October 21st, 2015. That was this week. The movie studio put out a promo with the character, Doc. Brown, coming out and telling us the future is what we make of it. One of the late night talk shows even got the actors Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox to reenact one of the scenes – as if they were finally arriving into the future, in the middle of the talk show.
The running jokes have all been centered around what did the screenplay of that movie get right, and which predictions were wrong. No, we don’t have any flying cars, and the hover-boards we have aren’t really hover-boards. Cars don’t run on trash, and thankfully our fashion sense is 30 years better than what the fashionistas of the 1980’s would imagine – for example, no, few of us are wearing spaghetti strainers as hats. Oddly, they did predict a red-headed casino owner would be seeking power.
It’s a classic 1990’s science fiction movie, but also rather typical for 80’s campiness, so the movie itself isn’t all that deep, though still fun. I have been struck though by all the folks who have gleefully sought out the comparisons to today’s world. Or one notable tweet that chided us, ‘if we wanted to have hover boards and flying cars by 2015, we should have elected leaders who would better fund science.’ Ouch.
I began to wonder if we had a script that was supposed to happen, that we all forgot about, until the day of the play. My fellow former theater folk here may have had that anxiety dream once or twice. I’ve noticed since we crossed the millennial threshold, the big blockbusters have, for the most part, stopped putting dates on the screen for things that happen in the future. But I did marvel at how dates (like today – 2015) used to sound so far fetched and futuristic. I imagine if you grew up earlier than the 1970s, 2015 sounds even more out there. How did we get here? Where did we go right, and where did we go wrong?
…I think most of us recognize, most of the time, that there’s no real script. We do our best and take one step at a time through the years. Life is a mixture of joy, and challenge, hope and grief. Some of us have it easier, and some of us have it harder, but none of us live without stress. That being said, I think most of us also fool ourselves into living like there is a script. It sounds different for each of us. Maybe yours is the standard american dream – graduate from school, get a job, find a spouse, have children, and own a home. It’s a good script to have. It only becomes a problem when we think we should follow it, but life doesn’t match it. Maybe school isn’t for you. Or these days, jobs change far more frequently than they used to. My dad retired after working at the same company for almost 50 years. That kind of security doesn’t really happen anymore.
Or maybe you’re not looking to get married, or to get married again. Or children aren’t in your future for social, biological, or economic reasons. When family doesn’t look like the way we were raised to imagine it, it can be the source of great pain. I know that grief is real and legitimate; it’s good to acknowledge it if it’s a source of pain for you. But I find for myself, that I have to check where is the real sense of loss for me, and where I’m feeling loss from not following that imaginary script. We all deviate from it, but we don’t all have to feel bad when we do.
Or maybe you’ve lived that script and enjoyed the fullness of it, and are now wondering, what next? What does retirement mean for me? Do I become less busy, or more? When I move to be closer to the grandkids, what will become of my long time friends that have meant so much to me? I think this is the hidden secret about the classic script. Even when it’s full, and realized and meaningful, it doesn’t always offer the answers we may crave. At some point, we take a turn, and need to figure it out on our own or with our loved ones. So I’m cautious of scripts. They may be a good framework for goals, but they aren’t full of a lot of answers. I wonder how often we follow those scripts thinking they’ll have answers….
Other than the “American Dream” that I’ve just talked about, there’s another kind of tradition that we often adhere too. I call it, “The way we’ve always done things.” I think this script is probably as guilty, if not more so, of being the source of everyday smaller sufferings for those who otherwise have everything they need. It’s the kind of pain that happens when the only thing that’s “bad” that happens, is that an event, or an action, or a schedule is different than it would have been in the past – and we experience pain. Often, the new event or schedule is just as good, or near as good, or possibly even better – but it doesn’t matter; we’re off script from how things have always been done – so it triggers pain in us. Not real injury, or real grief, or real loss; it triggers imaginary suffering. I say imaginary suffering, because the only pain we’re experiencing is in our heads and not in the actual world.
Some of us may be wondering if I’m being a little unfair to tradition, or not giving tradition it’s fair voice. First, know that many Traditions (with a capital T) have history and meaning and purpose that are valued by communities, and I see that too. We honor holy days and holidays in our religious community for this reason. Likewise, memorial services, weddings and child dedications often are at the top of my priorities. So yes, tradition can be vital and life-saving and affirming. Second, rest easy; tradition always has it’s fair voice. It’s probably the loudest thing any of us ever hear. I think that’s the case, because traditions (with a lower case t) can also pretend-shield us from our daily struggles tied to change.
Why do we face change with such fear and trepidation? In hindsight, it’s probably obvious, but we do it time and time again, and in the moment forget, so it’s important to repeat. We’re growing older, or the world is less secure than I once imagined, or I’ve had enough grief in my life lately – those are all thoughts that are real and true and important to acknowledge. But sometimes, we try to avoid acknowledging change by lifting up the shield of tradition. It’s as if we imagine – if this other thing stays the same, everything else will as well. … but it doesn’t. Life is change. Life is newness, and letting go; day after day. And that’s beautiful and that’s hard. But change is here to stay; tradition or no tradition.
What would we be like if we were a people of letting go in the face of scripts and tradition? Can we be a little easier on ourselves when things don’t turn out as planned? Even if they really don’t turn out as planned can we still go easier on ourselves over it? Can we learn to assess and judge where we are in our lives without needing to compare it to our neighbor, or to our childhood and child-like dreams? When the day comes, if it hasn’t already, when you feel like your religious community wasn’t perfect in some way – can we be patient enough to remember that that’s an eternal truth for human community – we don’t do perfect? That’s probably a tradition with a capital T that we can not change – maybe the only one.
When your Sunday school teacher forgets a kid’s name, or your minister is not all things to all people, or the choir member finally someday misses a note (I know that hasn’t happened ever), or a Board president doesn’t see things exactly your way – can we learn to let go and let live? Can we live into the next today, and not stay stuck in the time of disagreement or disappointment? Many religious communities face this challenge, and it’s a normal thing to wrestle with. I’ve shared this with our Board, and I think it might be helpful for more of us to hear it, so I’ll share it here too. People don’t come here to be happy, and our purpose is not to make everyone happy. If happiness were the main goal, religion would have died out a long time ago, and with it, religious communities. When we fixate on holding onto how things once were, we increase our own suffering. Happiness may be an end result of our search, but striving to be happy usually ends in suffering. We cling for what was, or we grasp for what might be. Neither grant the genie’s wish.
Religious communities, in all our imperfections and our awkward dance between tradition and change, seek not to grant happiness, but to offer hope. That through all the turmoil and the hardship, we can remember the times of solace and joy. That change also brings us out of places of suffering. This pain we feel will someday go away. That the loss of a loved one, does not steal from us the times we shared together; that we are forever changed for knowing them, and the world is so too changed for our passing through. We give hope that this all means something. And it does. When I’ve known times of hardship, religious community has helped me ground myself and find my direction anew – before all the change and all the turmoil. But through that change, something new came about. And we’re living in that something new today.
Can we find hope in letting go? Can we make room for what may come by learning to let be what once was? When we toss the proverbial stone into the waters, hoping it will skip, will we go with it clutching till we soak ourselves, or will we let it sail on it’s own, free of our steering hand?
I’ll close with a return to where we began; “Back to the Future.” Time travels a cute, albeit fascinating, sci-fi idea. We can’t hop into a fancy car or a spinning blue box and travel backwards or forwards in time to the past or the future. But each of us, every single day, travel into the past or wonder about the future. When we cling whole cloth to the old, or to tradition, or make contingent our happiness about things yet to be – we travel in time. We live a life that once was, or a life that may never be. But in both cases, we cease living our one precious life. We may not be able to choose or change certain things about our lives – sometimes pains and grief may not be wished away – but we can choose to live our life. Living into today – saying “no” to our minds’ ceaseless drive to send us forwards or backwards in time -is a precious act of faith. Faith that this moment, this life, is here and sacred and worthy of living. It begins today, again and again.
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.