Posts Tagged Winter

Spring Cleaning

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/18/18 reflecting on the winter times of our spirit, the suddenness of change after hardship, and the effort that accompanies Grace.

So we’re coming to the end of another winter. I’m not sure what to make of it. As the years go on, I find myself making an assessment of each end of Winter. I remember in my childhood, and even in my college years, I found it magical that like clock-work, on the first day of Spring, the temperature would radically change – it seemed always clear that Winter was over. I haven’t felt that has happened in recent memory.

My household is ready for Spring. I’m ready for Spring, my husband is ready for Spring, my dog is ready for Spring, and my indoor cat can’t wait to plaintively look out the screened window into the wide world that he can not inhabit – once it’s warm enough for us to finally open the windows. (Lest you think we’re cruel, the last time the cat got out, he evicted the family of rabbits from their den beneath our porch. No one wants that. My cat makes for a much better absentee landlord.)

We were talking about this in my household yesterday, that everyone seems ready for Winter to be over; that we feel like it’s been a hard winter. …But it hasn’t really been a hard winter. I stopped wearing my scarf a month ago. We haven’t had much snow, and I swear last week, my loveable dog that hates being out in the cold – I caught that dog sunbathing on the back porch in a sunbeam. But it still has felt like a tough winter.

The nor’easters are part of the reason. A lot of the trees in my neighborhood – 100+ foot tall Pines, lost so many branches – branches the sizes of normal trees. Our front hedgerow probably won’t survive the damage, and our magnolia tree lost the lower back third of its branches.

I think that’s what this feeling is really about. This season has been a symbol for us; this Winter has felt like a symbol for what we’re going through in our personal lives. School might be tough; others have dealt with health issues for a long time; our Fellowship has lost many long time friends and family members to illness; One more thing can feel like just too much.

And in the news cycle, it seems like every day is another cultural or political nor’easter coming out of nowhere and straight for us. Our next generation is being raised in an America where ethical mediocrity is the norm, and they need to make sense of that while never knowing a world where this was strange.

But tough times don’t last forever. We have to grieve through them as best we can, but they do end and something new comes through eventually. It’s not always comforting when you’re in the midst of an endurance run through rough times, but it’s important to believe; because it’s true. Sometimes the Spring comes, however late, and we’re still thinking it’s Winter because the Wintertime has lasted so long. For our elders, there’s a wisdom that’s learned in growing through the Depression, the World Wars, the Cold War, and so on and so on. They have seen Winter after Winter, come and go. It doesn’t make it easier, I imagine, but there’s a knowledge, from past experience, that Spring always comes – with some great effort. But if this is your first spiritual Winter, it seems like it extends forever.

One of these long Winters, in particular, comes to mind. From Ferguson to Parkland, gun violence, and our culture of gun violence, has permeated our nightmares. Led by our youth, there will be national rally to end gun violence on March 24th – with a local rally here in Herkshere Park. The Fellowship will be gathering at 10am and it runs till 1pm. I’ll be there; I hope you will too. In the natural world, Winter turns to Spring all on its own – but in our cultural world it takes all our effort to make the wheel turn back to life.

And this is true for the smaller everyday winters of our spirit, especially when they go on and on. Maybe the kids at school have been mean for a long time; or we can’t seem to catch a break in our career; or health problems or day to day stressors fill our world. All of those very real things can change how we understand the world. They may be tough; they may be hard, sometimes even very hard – but they don’t define the world. They don’t define joy, or limit hope, or change the nature of our character. I often talk about reverence in our services. For some that means revering God, for others it means to find a sense of awe in life. Today, I think it means recognizing that moment when we see the first flowers poke up past the ice and once froze earth – and knowing that matters – at our core. … and taking a step back and knowing that life has always been there beneath that frozen earth, whether we see it or not…. In the Wintertimes of our heart, life still grows. …

Our story this morning about the magic vase that leads to an epic tale of spring cleaning – is one of the ways we can begin to find balance. There wasn’t anything actually magical about the vase, but that little bit of beauty that we let in (or poke up through the frozen ground in the case of the earlier imagery) begins to help us to see the places where we can contribute to rebuilding our home, in the case of the story, or rebuilding our communities or lives, or even our sometimes broken hearts. Sometimes, Winter, is just a matter of perspective.

Greta and I were talking about spring cleaning earlier this week, and she made the point that often our homes get dirtier at first when we start the big spring clean – stuff comes off shelves so you can dust, every sock needs to be taken out in the desperate hope that this day we might finally find all the missing pairs, all the pillows and what not need to come off for the steamer clean, and so on. Spring cleaning isn’t about making everything instantly better, neat and tidy – it’s a very messy process. When we come out of the winter times of our spirit, even with the suddeness of flowers poking through the earth, everything doesn’t become neat and tidy overnight. There’s a lot of sudden change, but it takes effort, and probably getting things a bit messier first before the final turn.

It’s important, from time to time, to teach our own Fellowship history – lest the wisdom and mistakes of yesteryear ever get lost. We have a booklet that was published at our 50th anniversary that details some of our highlights. I remember first being handed it by Lois Ann Sepez, when she was still alive. She had a smile on her face, and was eager to share our stories with me. It had a story in it just like magic vase (well almost just like it) – our own homegrown story of spring cleaning. Apparently, there was a time some decades back where our building wasn’t as well kept up as it is right now. The minister at the time (Rev. Ralph Stutzman) would go to committee meetings, board meetings, town halls. He would talk with folks individually, or on the phone. He apparently tried everything to get people inspired to clean up the Fellowship building and grounds. Then one Sunday morning, as folks arrived to the Fellowship, they saw Ralph doing the last touches of paint on what are now our outer red doors. He cleaned up the outside of one part of the building, and as the story goes, the membership was finally inspired to start cleaning up the rest of our sacred space. It just took one person to step up, bring a little beauty into a place, and the rest began to follow.

Ironically, I often heard it said that we must have red doors because we’ve always had red doors – it’s our tradition. I disagree. I think our tradition isn’t red doors. Our tradition is a Fellowship that will rise to the occasion when the need is there. We will always find new challenges to face as generation mentors generation, but when the time comes we will come through. Reflecting our theme this month – “What would it mean to be a people of balance?” What balance can you bring to this space? What talent do you have that you can share that might inspire others? How does your presence remind others that there is beauty and worth and value in the life around them – to help balance out the times of despair and exhaustion when we otherwise feel worn down by the long winters of our spirit?

When we build communities and spaces with fear in our hearts, or prejudice in our minds, we create pockets of hardship for some immediately, but in the long term, it affects us all. Sometimes balance involves seeing the holy in the other; sometimes balance is fixing the paint on a door. Sometimes balance is remembering that all our hardships are interconnected; what affects me now may affect you later, or vice versa. May we learn to find more vases to bring to the table – what is your magic vase you bring? May we bring our individual strengths to build the common good. May our times of hardship remind us of the humanity of one another, and carry that lesson forward to the days of our strength, so that we may some day craft peace and joy where there was sorrow.

 

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Accepting Grace: The Parable of the Three Trees

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.

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Rebirth and Renewal

This sermon was preached on Sunday, March 22nd, 2015 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It explores the role of doubt during the winter times of our spirit. It was part of our monthly Multigenerational family friendly service.

 

Happy first weekend of Spring everyone. (snowscape photo) It’s been a rough long winter for many of us. We’ve had a lot of strong snowstorms in quick succession this year, and it can feel really overwhelming, even if they might have been fun to play in or watch over cocoa at first. Over time, you can get sick of the dirt and the rock salt, and the wiper blade that at some point just decided to stop cleaning the bottom left third of your driver-side window (or maybe that last bit is just me.) And we just want it to be Spring already – how long do we have to live through this?

I know I felt that way Friday night when I realized we weren’t getting a dusting, but something I was going to have to shovel through one more time. I know when Brian got home from the train at 11pm at night, and saw 6 inches of snow on top of the car in the Huntington Station parking lot, and thick ice on the windows, without any gloves, that he let out a primal scream – a primal scream. Were there any other primal screams this weekend? (just slowly nod if you don’t want to raise your hand…)

And for some of us, this Winter has felt like a symbol for what we’re going through in our personal lives. School might be tough; others have dealt with health issues for a long time; our Fellowship has lost many long time friends and family members to illness; and a neighboring congregation, that many of us have attended year after year to start out the week of the Fahs Summer camp, burned down last weekend. One more thing can feel like just too much.

But tough times don’t last forever. We have to grieve through them as best we can, but they do end and something new comes through eventually. It’s not always comforting when you’re in the midst of an endurance run through rough times, but it’s important to believe; because it’s true. Sometimes the Spring comes, however late, and we’re still thinking it’s Winter because the Wintertime has lasted so long.

I went for a walk to a brunch spot Saturday morning. I put on my winter coat, gloves, long scarf, hat, and snow boots. It was still freezing; snow was everywhere; and there was a fair bit of ice. I had to dodge at least one neighbor who didn’t see me as his snowblower was grinding up the layers in his driveway. The sky was gray and cloudy and I was wondering it I should have brought an umbrella too. In fact, the weather reports said rain in the morning. But the rain didn’t come. On my way home, the sky had turned sunny. I saw the color blue up there again – it’s a great color that I feel like we haven’t seen in awhile. All the snow melted fast, and my winter clothes started to be come too much. Gloves came off, scarf untied, the hat went and finally I was walking with my coat open. But for the first bit, I didn’t trust it. “Oh, a wind will come.” “It’s not that warm.” Not until, “ok, now I’m sweating” came along before I changed my actions to fit the world around me.

Whereas a friend of mine in NJ had the mantra, “I’m planning to hold off shoveling till Mother Nature does it for me.” And he was right, it melted before he had to do anything. Inside, he already moved into Spring, and I needed a lot of convincing to find my way there too.

A month or so ago I got new glasses. I had gone to the eye doctor for a check-up and realized that after years of my eye-sight being constant, it was time for a new prescription. I’ve worn contacts since I was in college because they’ve always given me better eyesight than glasses. But recently, science has improved on the technology around eye-glasses and they can now better adjust for what my eyes need than contacts can. But somewhere along the way, I got used to seeing things just a little blurry. It’s small at first, but over time, those small bits can add up to a lot. One day this Winter, it dawned on me that I haven’t been seeing the craters in the moon, or the fine edges of stars in the night sky for what has probably been more than 10 years. I know it might seem foolish to miss that change, but sometimes things happen so gradually, that you simply don’t notice.

These new glasses, thankfully, fix that. My vision was 20/20 all this time, but I was missing the fine lines of things. I remember for the first few weeks, I was walking around a bit stunned by the world. The harbor at the dog walk at Coindre Hall had neat, clean edges again. The leaves had fine details again. Nothing was really blurry before, they just lacked distinction. Now everything had a crispness to it again. I must have lived for 10 or 15 years missing all that and not knowing.

We all do that from time to time. Especially, when the Winters of our spirit go on and on. Maybe the kids at school have been mean for a long time; or we can’t seem to catch a break in our career; or health problems or day to day stressors fill our world. All of those very real things can change how we understand the world. They may be tough; they may be hard, sometimes even very hard – but they don’t define the world. They don’t define joy, or limit hope, or change the nature of our character. I often talk about reverence in our services. For some that means revering God, for others it means to find a sense of awe in life. Today, I think it means recognizing that moment when we see the first flowers poke up past the ice and once froze earth – and knowing that matters – at our core. … and taking a step back and knowing that life has always been there beneath that frozen earth, whether we see it or not…. In the Wintertimes of our heart, life still grows. …

For the past two years, Brian and I have hung large pots of Mums from our back patio to add some color in the Autumn when the other flowers are mostly gone. Sometime around December, they pretty much lose all hope to survive and I want to take them down. Brian insists on keeping them hanging. He thinks the now dead plants “still look nice” – in their own special way. Well, now two years in a row, sometime in February a family of doves moves into one of the dead hanging plants and builds a nest. (show slide of dove family) This next slide shows a photo of the family taken last Spring. It doesn’t look like our mom and dad will raise any birds this year, but they have used the plants as a safe haven on some nasty Winter days. So it looks like I’ve clearly lost that battle with the dead hanging mums for next Winter for sure. But I mention this because it’s important to remember in the times of the Winters of our spirit, that when we’re dried up and useless or exhausted, that maybe life can find new ways of being born; ways we might not have ever expected.

All of these stories have something in common. The biggest changes – the biggest surprises – all happen on their own. We may need to do the best we can sometimes when life gets cold or crazed, but the seasons of difficulty often go away as suddenly as they arrived. They often become moments of grace, where things ease up through no credit of our own. We sometimes need to remember that very much. What has been, will some day ease, and offer something new.

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Prayer for Black History Month 2015

Spirit of Stillness, God of Many Names, Source of Love,

Help us to find the lessons among our village filled with snow and ice.

The greens are hidden, the tree branches are burdened hanging low,

and for a time – the roads – are not passable.

But this is true for but a time;

the snows will melt,

the earth will green,

and color after color will spring into newness soon.

Life was always there, beneath the earth, waiting to be seen.

May we come to find it once more with new eyes,

after a long cold season.

Mother of Hope, we know that rightly, some of us find joy in the play time,

sleds, and snowmen, and winter hikes.

May their joy inspire us; reminding us to play and not always toil.

Others among us are worn down by the season,

from illness or sadness, missing the long days of sun and warmth.

May we honor this difficulty, while grounded in the truth that although hidden, life surrounds us all the time.

At the close of Black History month, may the winter months draw us to the truth,

that in all things, the world bends toward justice.

Though we may find ourselves returning to the month of Winter in the march toward wider freedom, again and again,

Spring always follows the ice.

Life will triumph over the weight covering it,

one story at a time.

May we remember that the challenges before us today,

are not entirely the same as those we struggled with generations past.

Much work must be done,

and we are the hands to do it,

but the work of the generations before,

brought us forward along the rough road.

May we keep going forward.

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Prayer: Halloween/All Souls/Samhain

Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,

As the wheel of the year turns through another season,

with the chill in the air growing stronger,

we pause to remember those we have lost in our lives.

We remember the small moments that stand out amidst our great stories,

the breakfasts that were unnoticed at the time, but take on so much more now;

the laughter, the hope, the dreams.

May our loss turn in our hearts into something different,

may we find a profound joy in the gift of knowing those we have loved;

and may it teach us to cherish those around us even more.

May our remembering of the lives we have known,

teach us to live fully into the lives we still live;

deepen our ties to the community we are surrounded by,

to the families of our birth or the families of our choosing.

For our stories continue on,

our world needs our loving all the more

in the seasons of cold winds, and long nights.

Remembering that the wheel continues to turn,

and the warmth we once knew will return anew – again and again.

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Prayer at the End of Winter

Source of Love, God of Many Names, bring us back to ourselves.

With the closing of the Winter,

Help us to reflect on the places in our hearts where we have hunkered down,

Where we have closed ourselves to the bitterness around us.

May we let go of the biting comments of the past,

So they not fester in our minds.

May we make room for the coming Spring,

And for the seeds of the spirit –

that are striving to bud,

If only we would care for them.

Mother of All, bring us to your living water,

May we drink in your possibility.

The seasons remind us that all things are temporary.

All pains have a way of passing,

With new joys only a grasping hand away.

Let us not fixate on what is past,

Making it ever and always in our present.

Rather teach us to learn what is to be learned,

Mourn for what is gone,

To live brightly and sharply from those lessons,

And craft new stories for our lives.

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Prayer: Winter Festival of Peace and Lights 2012

Spirit of Life, God of Many Names and one Abundant and Transforming Love,

We celebrate this hour the hope of peace in our lives,

joy where ever it is found,

and the blessings of family and friends, both near and far.

We are grateful for this religious community,

the stories, the songs, and the silly amidst the serious.

May our congregation be a house of warmth,

when we are cold,

a foundation when we are on shaky feet,

and an inspiration when it’s hard to find a way.

Spirit of Peace, teach us to model compassion in our lives,

over the dinner tables,

on our way to school,

when the subway doors close in our face.

May we be the steady force that brings your way to life.

We hold in our hearts this morning all those who are missing loved ones,

family members who have passed,

soldiers who are serving abroad,

and those who don’t have the luxury to travel for the holidays to see their family.

And for those who build up their family, one friend at a time,

may this season be a cause of celebration for the many sources of love in our lives.

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