Posts Tagged Suffering
This sermon looks at the twists and turns of life that give and challenge our purpose.
Rich began our service talking about finding purpose in unexpected places. We never really know where we’ll end up from every turn we take. I’m going to frame that quickly in my own way, and we’ll move forward from there in a new way. I was 19 when I found Unitarian Universalism. In some ways, I share the usual story for converts to our faith. In my case, I was a devout Catholic who had come to accept that there was no Hell, that God was loving, and that homosexuality was not a sin – but an expression of love. In other ways, my story was unusual. I found a UU Fellowship in northern NJ through a job. For a host of reasons, I had dropped out of college in my first year studying environmental science. After getting laid off from a part-time job at a chain bookstore right after Christmas, I got word that a church was looking for a custodian. Over the next three years, that job expanded into their events coordinator (think weddings and art shows.) I was still pushing the mop, I was coordinating weddings, and I was back in college – this time studying religion and anthropology. For those of you going through a tough time with school or work, try to remember that you never know how things will turn out. Some of the worst times of our lives, still find a way to end eventually, and there can be something new in store for any of us.
That course correct was 24 years ago this month. It sometimes amazes me that I’ve been working on staff, or as a lay leader, or a minister in our congregations for 24 years – over half my life. But before that change, I was miserable. The Autumn of my first semester in college was the worst 3 months of my life. Significant health issues – I was almost hospitalized. The super high pressure we put on our teens to excel in High School and pick their direction in life before their brains are done growing, all felt moot when the new hand was dealt. It was a time that felt like there simply were no options, no path, no possibility – and what was worse, was the sense that all the hard effort I had put into my plan, was simply wasted.
Losing purpose. When we feel like we’ve lost our purpose, we experience deep pain, depression – that malaise of the spirit that gnaws and lingers well beyond sense or control. Spiritual malaise is an impossible cycle that reinforces itself. Nothing worked, so nothing will work. How I defined my life, was wrong, so I have no life to define. This is painful and hard, so life will continue to be painful and hard. I don’t understand how this all fits together, so nothing fits together.
It’s a real life experience, that seems to me, to make sense of why we tell stories of demons and devils. It teaches us to forget who we are. We conflate worldly events with personal worth – our personal value as people. We confuse our ego with our spirit. We become possessed – if we were to speak poetically about the pain that is very real. And stories of devils and demons, circle around the power of names and naming. We trade our name with that deep despair, and forget ourselves. Suffering is real. I don’t try to diminish that truth. And it need not define us, even if it’s drawing circles around our lives.
My big life course correct taught me something about depression, purpose and especially meaning. Sometimes we find meaning, sometimes we make it. (Now I’m about to utter another UU heresy, so please hold onto your seats.) There’s a silly Western philosophical conceit around existential purpose that I’ve come to loath. Somewhere along the way, with all our glorious scientific progress, we’ve conflated intellectual rigor and facts, with ontological meaning. Ontological is a big word meaning – the study of the nature of being. Even if we wouldn’t say it out loud, internally we sometimes conflate the idea that putting life under a microscope is a viable way to perceive, dissect, or reveal the atoms of our meaning and purpose. I think it’s bad religion – and a bit dangerous – when we try to answer the questions of How that science is a well-proven tool. And it’s bad science, when it tries to clarify the big question of why.
Terry Pratchett, a beloved British author and satirist, wrote in “A Hat Full of Sky,” “There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.” Malaise sets in when we dissect every wrong turn through the microscopes of our egos. Suffering – rather than remaining a well known fact of life – becomes evidence for purposeless. It’s a story; a story we tell ourselves. We could always choose to tell another story. After all, we’re choosing to tell the painful stories – sometimes dwelling is more a choice than we like to admit.
We need not look far to find another story. The whole of Buddhist practice centers on that other story. All life is suffering…. And we dedicate ourselves to reducing the suffering of others. It’s another way of looking at the same thing. Why do we choose one way or the other to look at the places where pain pushes against purpose? One view exacerbates the harm, one way leads to newness. Now I know, this isn’t always a switch we can just flip to find our way past malaise; the brain and the heart aren’t gears and cogs we can turn and twist on demand. But as someone who, like most of us, have found ourselves in those impossible places of the spirit, I need to point out that it doesn’t need to stay that way. Keep on.
Story is a form of art. In many ways, it’s my line of work now. We story our lives, to craft something that brings beauty and meaning into our communities; that heals lives, that focuses our intentions, that leaves lasting good. Stella Adler (an actress and teacher) once said, “Life beats down and crushes the soul …and art reminds you that you have one.” Story can be the art of purpose. The sun coming up every day is a story… change the story, change the world.”
Earlier we heard a piano version of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide. I’m not sure I can think of another song more emblematic for me of the poignancy, and pain, of the big twists and turns in life. “Stevie Nicks once explained that the real meaning of “Landslide” goes back to 1974, before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac, the now-legendary singer says, she was at the end of her rope. Money was tight, doubts about making a successful record lingered, and, as a result, the couple’s relationship was strained.” It’s hard to imagine such an iconic talent being at the end of her professional rope. And yet, most of us have been, or will be at some point in our lives. Suffering is real, and it is a part of life. How we tell it’s story though, can be different. Do we stay in 1974 with the musician’s pain, or do we move ahead to see a life of art and influence?
“And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills. ‘Til the landslide brought it down…. Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’ ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you. But time makes you bolder. Even children get older And I’m getting older, too. Oh, I’m getting older, too.”
…Cause I’ve built my life around you… what have you built your life around? If that changed in a blink, where would you find your grounding? Landslides of the spirit come sudden and unbidden for all of us. The matters we’ve built our lives around lend us purpose, but they are not necessarily our sole purpose, and they certainly aren’t inherent to our self worth. Our first principles reminds us of our inherent worth. Our worth is not tied up in our doing, though our doings do matter. Our worth comes first, and from that worth, we choose how to live into the world.
I’ll close with words from Arthur Graham: “Each of us is an artist whose task it is to shape life into some semblance of the pattern we dream about. The molding is not of self alone, but of shared tomorrows and times we shall never see. So let us be about our task. The materials are very precious and perishable.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 8/27/17. It reflects on spiritual discipline of taking one thing at a time during times of crisis and loss.
Go back to your earliest memories of Summer as a child. We’re often wired to remember the hardest times more easily than the good times, but I’ve found over the years, that most of us have pretty clear memories of some really wonderful good weather day of our yesteryears. The day that sort of defines our standard for Summer – the day we’re always deep down trying to relive into today.
I hadn’t yet turned 5, and my family just moved into the “starter home” that my parents still live in 37 years later. The neighborhood kids and teens came by to say hello, and my parents gave me permission to go out and play with them at the local park. Most parents were more permissive with their kids back then, to go out and play in the neighborhood, but I was especially lucky. We lived across from a middle school that was next to an elementary school and our local church. It was a place where a lot of kids always were.
I recall that day stretching out forever. I remember it as if I were out for 12 hours, but thinking on it, there was no way in the world that my parents let me, at the age of 4, be gone that long. I was probably exhausted and hungry after an hour or two. But I don’t remember it that way. My first taste of freedom on my own – even though my mom could surely see me the whole time. I was growing up; I had a little more control over my choices. A time when I didn’t have any real responsibility.
We strive for that as adults. How can we get away – on our own – but as adults we’re not trying to get away from mom to go play with the kids – we’re trying to get away from the burden of our duties and obligations. Until we’re retired, it seems increasingly impossible to disconnect from our career responsibilities. And from what I’ve seen from many of our Fellowship’s retirees, obligations don’t seem to actually taper off even then – they just change.
This is the time of year, when we catch ourselves wondering aloud to our friends “where did the Summer go? It went by so fast this year.” For me, this was probably the fastest departing Summer of my life. I know we often say that time seems to go faster every year, but I don’t find that to be consistently true. It’s more a matter of how distracted, or burdened we may be at any moment. If we’re dealing with health problems for ourselves or with someone we love, time stretches and shrinks in odd ways – maybe even at the same time.
I’m starting my tenth year in the ministry. It’s a milestone. With most of our clergy beginning the ministry somewhere in their fifties, ten years may be the only milestone most of us ever reach. So it’s getting me a bit reflective. Time is a funny thing. It sure doesn’t feel like I’ve been doing this for almost ten years – so it’s quick in a way. But I also would never say that it felt all that short. Time stretches and shrinks over the years. It’s more a matter of perception than reality, though it does have a real impact on our lives.
As a related aside, I was just asked on Friday to step into the role of Co-Chair for our denominations’ continuing education program for our 1800 UU clergy. I’ll be taking on the portfolio of worship for our continental (and international) professional gatherings. That doesn’t happen for new ministers. But there’s still a way in which I still wonder, how did I get here? I’m sure we all wonder that at different points in our lives. How did we get here? For some of us it’s wondering, “When did retirement sneak up on me?” Or for others, “How did college finish in the blink of an eye?” “My baby is graduating from high school this year.” None of it was actually quick – we can all remember the burdens and trials along the way, but it still goes in the blink of an eye. One of my friend’s son, who I still think of as an infant in my mind, is learning to ride a bike this weekend. He’s no infant, but the mind does weird things sometimes. Often, we compartmentalize some parts of our lives – the harder struggles – and they stretch out forever. And we experience the moments of wonder and awe, all too briefly.
Spiritual reflection can help with this. The old adage of taking things one day at a time, is good advice for managing suffering. Don’t let everything crash down on you at once in your mind, but get through each struggle on its own. But there’s a way in which we sometimes use that adage to make things harder on us. I remember an old TV comedy by this name – One Day at A Time. It was about a newly divorced mom raising her two daughters in the 1970s. It was a very funny show. It was also built on the premise that there’s always going to be another struggle to overcome. It’s true in life that there will always be more struggles – some that will be incredibly difficult. But when we internalize that to the point that it defines our life, we further lengthen our travails and shorten our moments of wonder and awe.
We all struggle with this. Maybe we could move toward another adage – “one moment at a time.” Moment by moment, enjoying or managing what’s before us. Letting down the burdens as they are overcome – rather than carrying their pain with us for the rest of our days. Only we ourselves know, when it’s time to move on from the weight of what we carry. But take my words as an invitation to wonder differently about how we choose or not choose to – let go. Holding onto the pain, keeps us in that pain maybe longer than we need … and it also sometimes makes us lose track of the good in our lives.
And sometimes we can’t let go. It’s not time. It’s been an odd Summer for me this year – so different than my childhood Summers. As I said earlier, it’s been the quickest on record. I still got out to visit family out of state. The dog and I still made almost daily 3-5 mile walks together. I had a lot of time out in the sun, a lot of time reading, even a great week at our annual Fahs summer camp for children and youth. But I think it went so quickly because there’s so much in the world that weighs heavily on us; especially in our own nation. The news cycle is necessarily keeping my heart and head in one-day-at-a-time mode, and the anger I feel reminds me to stay focused.
I was enraged Friday night when I learned our President ignored the rule of law by pardoning Sheriff Arpaio – who was found guilty of racially profiling latinos while subjecting them to inhumane prison treatment. Arpaio hadn’t even been sentenced yet, and President Trump didn’t even have the normal pardon review process done. Maybe Arpaio is just another name to you. Several years ago, I took part in large protest in Phoenix over the prison camps he created. People were subjected to 110 degree desert heat – with only a tent over them – and no air conditioning – without even normal due process. He lost lawsuit after lawsuit that was leveled against him, but until the people of Arizona voted him out, he was going to continue his atrocities in our name. That’s the man that our President thought deserved a pardon. On the night of the larger public witness I took part in 5 years ago, we heard the names of 122 detainees who had died in US detention centers that past year – none of whom have ever even gone to trial for a crime. Dying in a detention center without ever seeing the light of a court room. Five years later, Arpaio being guilty of contempt of court, gets to dodge even receiving a sentence for the crimes he’s guilty of.
I’m in one day at a time mode. As Texas is about to face a potentially devastating hurricane – with no one in charge of FEMA – our government is keeping the immigration check-points active – not only as dangerous choke points for folks seeking safety, but they also make people make the impossible choice between seeking safety from the hurricane or risking deportation. Lives are literally at risk by our social policies, and we wield them like they are harmless political talking points. We have lost any semblance of moral integrity as a nation, when we put children and elders at risk for empty political gain. As of this morning, five Texans have already died due to the flooding, and we’ll still make it harder for people to find safety, rather than help those in need.
I’m in one day at a time mode. The White House has signed a directive to ban Transgender soldiers from serving. We’re insulting our heroes who are willing to put their lives on the line to protect us – and we’re willing to insult our heroes for empty political talking points. Greed, indifference and naked pomposity is the rule of the day. And I’m in one day at a time mode.
And yet still, living “moment by moment”, or mindfulness, can still lend us focus and a path forward at the close of one very difficult Summer. As our earlier story about the potter – being less about what we create – and more about the process along the way that changes our own character – we can choose how to internally respond to the horrors of the day. The anger reminds me that I care – that’s why I’m angry. I’m still human. I worry for the day that I’m too numb to feel it. I’ve been there before, and that wasn’t better.
One of my colleagues paraphrased yesterday some wisdom from Leslie Mac – one of the leaders of the Black Lives of UU organizing collective – that’s particularly helpful to me in thinking through our process of moving forward as a religious community during a time when greed, indifference and pomposity are the rule of the day. Here are Leslie Mac’s words: “Anything we do regarding policy change can be undone, as we’ve seen with complete clarity over these past months. So it is most critical in our organizing that we do it in such a way that we are left with real and meaningful relationships–those can’t be undone.”
So, at the close of another Summer, and the beginning of another school year, I was at a planning meeting this past week of our Huntington interfaith clergy group. This is the time of year we begin thinking about our annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service. But this year, we have all the national hate crimes on our mind – the rise of the KKK and Neo-Nazis in the public square – from Charlottesville to Boston. So we came together this time – to begin to address our next steps.
We’re doing better at reaching out to one another, to linking into more faiths than just Christian and Jewish (though we have more work to do), and we’re trying to make sure that not only white clergy are at the table (though we have even more work to do on that score.) I’ve been talking with Rev. Artis, the religious affairs director for our local chapter of the NAACP, and we are beginning to desegregate clergy collaborations to everyone’s appreciation. This 9/11, save the date for an interfaith prayer vigil of unity in the face of hate at Hecksher park at 7:30pm here in Huntington Village. And two days before that, our Fellowship will be teaming up with the NAACP, at the Unity in the Community all day festival on Saturday, September 9th from 11am-5pm at Stimson Junior High School. Policies can be undone, but we can deepen our relationships, and no politician can undo those for us – nor can any politician make those relationships for us. Only we can do the work of relationship building in our lives – moment by moment, or day by day.
This sermon was preached on Sunday, 12/14/14 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at the wisdom of Julian of Norwich to help ground us in times of suffering and loss. It addresses our current moral crises with the death of black men on our streets, and the use of torture in our government.
On Tuesday, we had another Nor’Easter blow through our area. I was drenched from head to toe after running around to pick up bagels for my monthly clergy gathering – which this time met here at our Fellowship. Opening the umbrella, while carrying a Box of Coffee, my right hand limited by a finger splint due to a mild case of tendinitis – was just not worth the effort. So I gave up on the umbrella and went the route of Aquaman that morning. When my colleagues arrived a short time later, they would helpfully point out, “you’re wet,” as if I may have missed that fun fact.
As you can imagine from the work we have to do on our parking lot, the grounds here were no better than I was. Our southern entrance had a lake that started at the street and went half the way back. Our northern entrance was dry, but there was a large pool just past the front lot. Walking up to the office entrance, you could see two inches of water pooling up on the grass. By noon, there was water leaking down a chimney and through the wall into our office; the wall that divides the main office from my office. The pre-school housed here was closing early and parents were picking up their kids several hours early. We’d later learn of flooding in the basement of our cottage.
Thanks to the tireless work of Susie, Frank and Scott, (and possibly more folks,) we’d have trucks here the next day pumping out our lakes and our basements and surely disappointing the migrating ducks and geese that saw a new vacation home forming. Downed trees are or have been removed. At last update, I believe work on improving the condition of our lot for the winter will begin on Monday. We should see less lakes and less flooding very soon.
With every major project, things will get messy, or there will be surprises uncovered as the work to make it better gets underway. When you know something’s not working, fixing it isn’t always neat. But we try not to get frustrated by the next problem as if it were a surprise or out of the blue. When something’s not working, fixing it isn’t always neat, but the new problems don’t mean it can’t be fixed. Sometimes it just takes will.
As I was in our office hearing about all the extra storm-related challenges we’re facing, the next thing after the next thing, I had a moment where I felt like it was a mundane parable for our country which is struggling with much more serious woes. The news has been very rough lately. How rough it’s been for some of our people isn’t new, just how conscious mainstream America has been about the tragedies, is new. Last week’s sermon was a difficult one to preach and a difficult one to hear. A few people came up to me after the service to say that it was exhausting or unenjoyable – but thanked me for preaching what needed to be preached. I’m grateful for a community that is willing to reflect on such an impossible situation – because if we can’t work on healing racism in this country, we have no foundation as a religious community. When you know something’s not working, fixing it isn’t always neat. Sometimes it just takes listening.
Where I was outraged by the deaths of so many black men going unaddressed, this week’s Senate report on the CIA’s use of torture completely exhausted me. Watching the media spin doctor calling a spade a spade, so that we can either continue to feel good about ourselves as a nation, or so that some of our leaders are not tried in the Hague, is dispiriting. But I think it’s connected. How we treat black bodies in our nation is somehow related to how we treat brown bodies in our time of perpetual war. Our morality on our streets, is connected to our morality in our not-so-secret interrogation chambers. Now we know, for a fact, that there’s a real problem with how our government honors our founding principles, and honors international human rights laws. We can choose to spin ourselves in circles to deny what the Senate Report found, or we can choose to begin the work of fixing what we know isn’t working in our leadership.
But this week, I have no answers. I have no easy action steps for us to take to address political change in our democracy. We can remember last week’s underlying call to learn to listen to the anger, we may or may not understand, from our places of relative privilege – if we have that privilege. We can also seek grounding rather than actions. We have to do both, but often we do neither. For that grounding, I’d like to turn to three thoughts from the writings of Julian of Norwich that come out of her book, “Revelations of Divine Love” that are particularly helpful right now. Julian was an English anchoress alive in the 14th and 15th century and largely regarded as one of the most important Christian mystics.
Speaking of God, Julian writes, “He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.” It’s hard to find joy in times of adversity. Julian is speaking to the very human tendency to focus on the tempests, travails and disease we all face from year to year. And sometimes those tempests are horrendous storms that we would wish on no one. The media is awash with death, and violence, war and torture. And in our personal lives we are faced with loss of loved ones, personal illness, exhaustion from caring for a beloved family member, or wrestling with depression. All of it is real, and serious, and full of grief. And still… the mystic teaches us that we were never promised not to be tempested or travailed – that is the hard truth of life; we were promised we wouldn’t be overcome.
For Julian, this is not so much – or not solely – about faith in God, but a sense of union with God. For her, and many mystics, belief washes away and is replaced with a sense of deep connection with the holy; the sense that there is no separation between humanity and the sacred. I imagine it’s a similar sense that may arise in deep practices of mindfulness meditation. A deep sense of belonging, and finding nourishment from that well. I have experienced it in my own meditation practice, and can attest that it is grounding in times of extreme crisis. Even if we don’t live in that state most of the time, the moments of it inform all the rest. We remember that promise Julian speaks of – we shall not be overcome.
From that promise we hear what is Julian’s most notable teaching, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Our choir sang an anthem earlier that adapts this message by putting it into conversation with the part of all of us that wrestles with deep pain and misery. Some of t lyrics of this song by the Rev. Meg Barnhouse read, “I said, “Julian, do you not know, do you not know about loneliness, and Julian, do you not know, do you not know about disease?” I said Julian, do you not know, do you not know about cruelty?” I said Julian, it’s too much. It brought me to my knees.” Basically, it’s all well and good to say things will be well, but I’m facing death, and loneliness in a world full of places of extreme cruelty — how can you say all will be well – you don’t know what loss really is. To which the song’s version of Julian replies, “No one does not know, does not know about loneliness and no one does not know, does not know about disease.” She said, “No one does not know, does not know about cruelty.” She said, “I know, it’s too much. It brought me to my knees where I heard:
‘All will be well, and all will be well, all manner of things will be well.’
Julian believed that God controlled and orchestrated all things. Personally, I think Julian was way off-base there, but it does point to a certain truth. Sometimes, it’s in the times of strife where we find ourselves. Sometimes, it’s the mundane parking lot needing to really, really flood before we’ll take the action that we’re now taking to repair it. Sometimes it takes facing the loss of a job, for us to wake up to our addiction to alcohol. Sometimes it’s about injury; I recall the months of physical therapy it took me to heal following being hit by a car as a pedestrian. I would never want to go through that again, but it taught me to be more patient with the people around me. I gained an empathy for people dealing with mobility issues that I didn’t have before. Facing the risk of death, helped me to be more present to the life around me. It also showed me how some people react to injury. I have never been bumped into so much in my life on a NYC subway as when I was walking with a leg brace and a crutch. I swear, people would go out of their way to knock into the knee with the brace on. I found myself having to sit with the crutch physically protecting my knee, and people would still find a way to walk into my leg.
Sometimes, a nation can persist in allowing a certain number of it’s citizens to be killed every year to ignore what lies below the surface, but at a certain point – the tragic is so glaring that authority and privilege can’t keep our conscious quiet any more. I would never wish the tragic on anyone, but occasionally being brought to our knees helps us to hear what needs to be heard. What we become in light of that voice matters.
How do we find our way back to joy? Julian, the mystic, tells us, “Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.” Like most great mystics, gender is fluid. When she speaks of our “Savior” she means Jesus as our Mother. Some of us will hear this as speaking to our relationship to God. Others will find its truth in mindfulness or reverence in being. I find both interpretations helpful.
A discipline of grounding ourselves in these ways is tied to permission giving. Sometimes, when things are really tough, we don’t allow ourselves to feel anything but the pain or the misery. For some of us, it’s too much to manage to find room for joy. For others of us, we’ve been socialized not to allow ourselves to find joy in times of hardship; as if finding something to appreciate in a time of loss is somehow wrong. Life is too complex, and too messy, not to leave room for the whole range of human experience in any moment. These grounding disciplines can carve out room for what our hearts need.
The metaphor she points to is both our unending opportunity to be born and reborn again in the holy. That when we come to the point where we’re on our knees, because whatever life has thrown our way is just too much to bear, we come to realize that we’ve never left our source. …Out of whom we shall never come. As the words of one of our hymns tell us, born and reborn again… In this moment, again and again. Despite the hardships of this world, which are many, and sometimes unbearable, we return to our choir anthem’s message reminding us of tenderness, of friends, of the Spirit… “it’s only love that never ends.” It’s only love that never ends. If we return to this, if we are grounded in this, we can find joy in times of hardship. In fact, the moments of joy will help to heal, or manage, all the rest. And in some cases, finding the joy, may be the only way to bear what is unbearable.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
Quicken our spirits to possibility this Easter morning.
May the hope of this season stir our hearts to compassion and forbearance,
Humbled before this great story of life in the face of suffering,
We remember all those lives who have been taught to endure.
All those people who suffer under adversity.
May we never become complacent to the grief of our neighbor,
May we come to understand the role we have in the strife of this world,
And find the courage of our convictions to transform our lives and our ways.
For those who struggle in silence – we pray:
May we not become consumed in self-doubt,
May we lift up the burden of self-blame,
and find a path forward in love.
We hold up the challenges of this family holiday,
Celebrating with those of us surrounded by loving family,
Mourning with those who are grieving the loss of someone dear,
And honoring the reality that many of us struggle with love and frustration over awkward family meals,
Knowing that sometimes the meal is not even to be had.
God of Love, may we this Easter, come back to our center,
And find in our lives a sense of abundance,
Where we feel broken,
A sense of compassion where we were cold,
And know a message of hope when we are lost.