Posts Tagged meditation

Return Again and Again

This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/24/17 as part of our annual Rosh Hashanah service. It reflects on the nature of life, of risk, loss and the power of meditation.

 

Return again, return to the land of your soul, return to what you are, return to who you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again. These words from our hymn, are music and lyrics written by Schlomo Carlebach, or as Reb Shlomo to his followers. He was a Jewish rabbi, religious teacher, composer, and singer who was known as “The Singing Rabbi” during his lifetime. He died in 1994. It’s a hymn that feels like it’s been around for centuries, but it’s a thoroughly 20th century creation.

This past month, as we’ve been reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of welcome: How do we welcome the stranger; how do we welcome back our own selves when we’ve been our own worst critic. I’ve found myself speaking again and again about the amorphous nature of time – how it stretches and shrinks – affecting our memory, rewriting pains and sorrows, or keeping joys distant. Today, we’ll look deeper into welcoming the moment before us – that returns again and again – in joy and in pain.

Happy Rosh Hashanah all. Shana Tova! A good and sweet year to us all. In the Jewish calendar, we begin a new year; returning once again to a time of reflection, a time of atonement, a time of seeking out those we have wronged, and seeking to make amends, face to face. It’s a ritual that we return to year after year. This coming Friday night, we’ll hold our annual Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur. It’s a somber service of reflection, discernment, and atonement. Join us at 7:30pm to meditate on the closing end of these sacred days.

Sacred ritual has a power to it that transcends human generations. I marvel at the rituals we have been enacting millennia after millennia. That which the human community does in concert, again and again, takes on a sense of eternity. It seeks to encounter the moment between the moments that the poet T.S. Eliot famously penned. The world will continue its spin, our days and lives will grow long and short, from coffee spoon to coffee spoon, but these moments of ritual, punctuate the routine. The rote becomes pierced, and one moment stands outs, amongst all the rest. When I hear the shofar be blown each year, it quickens my spirit. Time seems to shorten and stretch, to pause before eternity, knowing it will pass in a breath or two. We can return to this still point, again and again, but we can’t linger. It’s ever before us, but never any less urgent.

The poet’s (T.S. Eliot) beauty describing these still points in the turning world, reflect the opposite side of the pain of loss, or risk. Earlier in the service, we heard Harriet’s reflection on surviving a month in a coma, now twenty years later. I found her message of attending to the breaths that come unbidden in times of urgency – so moving. When the moments of risk or pain, literally take our breath away, they are calling us back to attend to what’s before us – while we still can. It’s not time to think, or to worry, or to fret, but to act with intention – as best we can. How many breaths go by, unnoticed? When they are noticed, our world changes.

Our shared intentions, that lead to a common impact, matter. When we come together this next Friday to honor the end of the Days of Awe, we enter again into a common human stream, a common human story; that is ageless. Maybe it’s a bit of magical thinking, but I think it’s a kind of magical thinking that’s quite true, in the mythic sense of truth. These rituals, in changing form, have repeated and been adapted for at least 3400 years – maybe 170 generations have atoned, have fasted, each in their own way – but along a common thread. There’s a power in living into that universal story. Culture and identity give us strength. Common purpose, and common ground, create a foundation civilization thrives in. It also builds a foundation that the human heart can return to for solace, when we lose our breaths, again and again. Having a place; adding to a shared story, makes acting in unison purpose all the more stirring and all the more possible.

When we were planning this service, Harriet and I spoke about the power of meditation in these troubling times – before the times of struggle come. In years past, I committed to a group meditation practice led by a Korean Buddhist Zen Nun. These days, with my schedule all over the map, I maintain my own personal practice of meditation. If you’re interested in joining our Fellowship’s groups, there’s a Tuesday morning and Friday morning group that meets weekly here. (Any members of those group willing to raise your hands…). When I endured my own near brush with death – a fraction of what Harriet endured in her earlier sharing – being hit by a car – the doctor told me that I was quite lucky. My body decided, on its own, to remain relaxed, as I was hit and thrown ten or fifteen feet. If I had tensed up, she said, the injury would have been far worse. We often talk about meditation’s benefits in the spiritual sense, and sometimes around it’s healing of daily stresses. But it also teaches our body, our muscle memory so to speak, to internalize the lesson of this too shall pass.

I have no super human powers. I’m still terrified of looking over the railings in malls that have a second floor, I still won’t fearlessly swim far out into the ocean, and no amount of money will ever get me near power tools. And even as I was writing this sermon, my husband was having a rare day working from home, as his office is moving to a new location. As I was writing about this very idea of those moments of shock and awe, that take our breath away, he was over and over, walking into my writing space quietly and then (completely unaware) loudly asking a question of me. Each time – I’d gasp and startle. So no, no superhuman powers.

When I was hit by a fast moving car, I didn’t will myself to relax; I just intuitively returned to that place that meditation opened me to. It welcomed me home, without struggle, or fight – through no fault or effort of my own. And that intuitive return, again and again, found in meditation, may have literally saved my life. If meditation doesn’t speak to you, give it another shot, again and again. It has a lasting impact, that’s not quite quantifiable, yet still eternal.

Return again, return to the land of your soul, return to what you are, return to who you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again. In the spirit of these days of awe this service is more contemplative, more musical, and maybe a bit less word-driven that usual. We’ll close with one more song, this time a somewhat familiar one – hopefully by now – that’ll we sing in simple repitition as a chant for a bit longer than we usually do. As we come to the close of our service, it’s our hope that this chant can be another way for you to enter into the spirit of meditation. Return to the still point, again and again.

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The Art of Worship

This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn, on 3/10/13. It explores the meaning of music, corporate worship, and presence.

(I would like to start by congratulating all of you here today. Look around… You are the people that made it. Daylight Saving Time has not thwarted you this year. I have been crowd-sourcing all week to determine what time 11am actually was this Sunday. I suffer from what used to be a much more severe form of OCD – but alarm clocks are still the one source of angst that continues unabated. Apparently, we either all figured it out, or the group that comes later will be sorely disappointed that they were smarter than we were.)

When I was in seminary, I made a 4 month commitment to get up at 6am four days a week and travel from my off-campus apartment to the university to join another 25 or so students. We walked into the chapel in silence. We kneeled or sat on moderately comfortable pillows designed for the purpose. Occasionally we would walk as a line in circles through the Quad in silence. We were joined by a Korean Zen Buddhist Nun once a week, and the other three mornings just our faculty Buddhist scholar and another student monk to lead us. Occasionally we would hear a five minute Dharma talk about the meaning and purpose of Buddhism. By the end of the four months I could chant the Heart Sutra from memory – although now seven years later I couldn’t possibly do it still. On Thursdays the Buddhist Nun would make us do 108 full body prostrations as part of a meditation on relinquishing the ego. (And by “make us do it” I mean – you weren’t going to say no to this elder!) (It had a side benefit of tightening the thighs as well. She was in remarkable shape.) But the vast majority of the time – we simply just sat in silence as a group.

…I’m… not a morning person. (I used to have a votive candle dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Java. … If you ever see one again, please pick it up…) … So for me to commit to getting up at 6am to do anything, it has to be really remarkable. I would set the alarm for an hour of a day that I never believed actually existed, got dressed for the cold, and traveled to sit in a dark room with a bunch of other people and … that was just about it. Why?! I could do the same thing at another more reasonable hour of the day in my PJ’s at home all warm and comfortable! I know some of you have said the same thing about dragging yourself to worship at the ungodly hour of 11am on a Sunday. (Who gets up that early … on a Sunday!)

The twenty-five of us had committed to this practice in a group – because there was a difference. Sitting in meditation alone is good. But sitting in a group is different. After a time, you become attuned to the qualities of the silence. There’s a different kind of depth to the quiet when you come to it in community – a depth that can’t be expressed in words, merely experienced. There’s also the gym-buddy factor. “Sam” knows when you missed and is going to give you some grief for making their work-out all the harder without your presence. Dedication to a spiritual practice can be a solo endeavor, but the art of worship is often a communal project.

Consider our own setting. We have a larger scale corporate worship each week – with some Sundays close to 300 adults, children and youth. We commit to coming together, sharing our spiritual journeys, laughing and learning from a wisdom tale, and praying as a group before our children head to their classes and we settle in for a sermon. In between all these pieces, we encounter music. I say encounter because we’re not really here listening to a performance on a stage. Traditionally, the choral and instrumental pieces were seen as dedications, prayers or offerings to God. Many of us here still do see them as such. (I know I do.) But not all of us believe in God. From our own congregational survey we conducted a year or so ago in preparation for our search for our new Senior Minister, our community was split about 50/50 on the question of God.

With that in mind – the goal of our music isn’t to allow half of us to encounter it as an offering to God, and half of us to just have a low-cost, high-quality mini-concert each week – (however awesome that would be!) There is a space in between – there is a common story to be shared through our differences of belief. … Something else is going on.

Take our second hymn this morning. It was sung in three parts. The first part sings: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” The second part just sings half of that “Where do we come from?” more slowly. And the third part sings a completely different lyric: “Mystery, Mystery. Life is a riddle and a mystery.” Each part has a different melody, and is best designed for folks with differing singing ranges. When they come together they create a whole that is remarkable from the sum of its parts. We’re each doing our own thing – based on what feels most natural for our range. Some of you probably even remained silent – … but that silence contributed to the experience too.

Our belief of the specificities of meaning of the music is not what’s key. Our music is an offering to that which is beyond ourselves – and an invitation to be centered on that focus. It’s not merely for our consumption, bought and sold, but an inspiration to draw us out of our head, to remind us that there is more to life than our to-do lists.

The Unitarian Universalist theologian, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker writes that, “The Bible opens with the declaration that earth is a sacred creation, pronounced “Good!” from the beginning. Genesis tells the story of Jacob, sleeping in the wilderness with a stone for a pillow. He dreams that he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with an endless circle of angels ascending and descending. When he wakes up he exclaims, “Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.”[1] Jacob surely means there is a living God, and that every moment is filled with God’s presence. But the core of that message is also that every moment is already full. Our music can also mean that. It calls to us to stop – to just stop all the rest – and listen.

We can often get caught up in belief. Sometimes it’s because we’re too caught up in our heads. We can weaken our encounter with our music as we read ahead to make sure we fully agree with every word in the hymn. Sometimes though we trip up because we’re too caught up in our hearts.  We can miss the power of the message of a wonderful anthem if it invokes a theology different than our own – or reminds us of a form of religion that brought us pain in our lives. We go back to that place of pain, and we shut out the moment the music is pointing toward. It can hold us back from the art in worship. In both ways, we fear being too credulous. One of my favorite fantasy authors, Terry Pratchett, defines the word credulous as “having views about the world, the universe and humanity’s place in it that are shared only by very unsophisticated people and the most intelligent and advanced mathematicians and physicists.”[2] He uses humor to get at the point that whatever we call it, most of us are pointing toward the same thing, the same sense. Music, with or without words, is seeking to do this same thing. It offers itself up to this purpose. We take these moments to bear witness to the depth at the center of life. We can get caught up arguing and discussing the intricacies, dimensions and scope of what we’re trying to describe… or… we can take part – we can appreciate that core. We can’t do both at the same time.

Later in the same novel where we learn what the humorous definition of credulous is – called “the Hogfather” – Pratchett sets up a great dialogue between Susan, a woman who just wants to be “normal” with her very unusual grandfather – Death (aka the Grim Reaper.) One small part of it reads, “All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.” To which Death responds “REALLY AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”[3] Pratchett typically relies mostly on pastiche, and a smart turn of phrase, to get his point across. This time he points back toward Jacob and the ladder descending from heaven. Whatever we believe, whatever we make up, whether we are right or wrong – is sometimes necessary. It makes us human. I personally feel that some of the things we “make up” actually point to what’s true and right. Art for example – art is an illusion. But it’s no less true for its fabrication. In reality, we come to know truth through the fabrication.

“Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.” We are the rising ape that can finally recognize the descending angel – even if we may call that angel by a different name than the person sitting next to us in our pews this morning – whatever you call it, that angel is still there.

All of this in worship – all of this together – is grounded in an active purpose. We come here to be changed. … We come here to be reminded. … We come here … to go back out. Rebecca Parker writes, “we understand that being attentive to the holiness right in front of us is a prerequisite for ethical living. If we fail to see life’s goodness, we will fail to take action to protect it from harm – we will walk by suffering without seeing, and busy ourselves with unimportant tasks while glory surrounds us.”[4] Our music, our prayers, our worship — all the intangible art that goes into crafting our Sunday morning encounter — is designed to point toward this truth. Life is precious. … Life is worth noticing. … Our creative imagination is actually referring to what is true at our core – even if the details are fuzzy along the edges. And sometimes giving our joy as a gift – musical or otherwise – is the only right and true way to even have it.

 

Please rise now in body or in spirit and sing our closing hymn #36 “When in Our Music.” (It’s different than what’s printed in the Order of Service.)


[1] The UU Pocket Guide, Loc 824 Kindle. 2012 edition

[2] “Hogfather” Terry Pratchett. p. 246 (Nook)

[3] “Hogfather” Terry Pratchett. p.225 (Nook)

[4] The UU Pocket Guide. Loc 854, Kindle. 2012

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