Monday, December 31, 2012

Endings and Beginnings

A sermon preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Rapphannock on Sunday Dec. 30,2012.

Reading:  "We Shall Not Cease" (from "Little Gidding") T.S. Eliot as published in {Risking Everything} 110 Poems of Love and Revelation, edited by Roger Housden

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of fame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Sermon:  Endings and Beginnings by Margaret M. Sequeira, MTS

First my thanks to all of you for inviting me back again. It is always a joy and privilege to come and worship with you.  You are such a warm and welcoming community.

So here we are at the end of a year which of course marks the beginning of a new one.  This time of year truly embodies Eliot’s words “to make an end is to make a beginning.”  Lately our culture has been filled with news of “endings” with the supposed Mayan end of the world.  As a culture there seems to be a lot of attention on “endings” – the end of a year, an era, a way of life.  Some are angry and want a return to “the good old days” – a longing for a better, simpler time.  Some focus simply on what is next – looking only head and cannot wait to put the past behind them – looking to create a better future.  

As Unitarian Universalists we have often been in the later category – focused on the future, less concerned with what has come before.  We are in that way a thoroughly modern faith community.  After all it was Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Divinity School Address that admonished the young ministers “ go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men,..” Emerson called for a direct experience of the holy, to trust one’s own self.  This did not endear Emerson to those at Harvard who of course invested time and energy in training new ministers in the tried and true model of the old.  Of course there is a downside to this future focused, figure it out for yourself approach which is that often we end up trying to re-invent the wheel or we continually repeat the same mistakes because we keep forgetting what did not work.  As the poet and philosopher George Santayana reminds us: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Unitarian Universalists are also optimists. One of key tenets of liberal religion according to UU minister and theologian, James Luther Adams, is that “the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.”  Given our optimistic, future oriented faith, how do we approach this time of the year that seems to beckon us into a reflection not just on what is to come but also on what has been?  How do we understand Eliot’s words that the end of all our exploring will be to find ourselves at the beginning?

This excerpt from Eliot’s "Little Gidding," has long been a favorite of mine.  There is a resonance that our exploring brings us back again and again…that time is not linear but rather a spiral.  It is not a simple repetition of the past but rather to come back to the beginning and see it with new eyes, to see what we could not see before, the waterfall, the children in the apple tree, even the very gate through which we enter.  We have been here before and yet we know it again for the first time.

While Eliot gives us beautiful images of waterfalls and children, I know that in my life, sometimes finding myself in the same place can mean finding the same problems and pain.  Ah yes, here we are again or maybe more accurately “Oh No not this AGAIN!”  We wonder if we can ever break free if these patterns and making the same mistakes.  Ah yes, to find ourselves at the beginning again does not always feel like such a good thing. 

So what do we do when we find ourselves in this place AGAIN?  Maybe some of us are feeling just this way at the end of 2012 and we would like to just leave it behind and begin again in this coming new year. How might Eliot’s poem help us here?  Well maybe we can begin with noticing what is different?  What do I know now that I did not know before? Well I know I have been here before and somehow the path I took from here led me back.  So bringing our awareness that we have been here before, we can look at what we have tried before that didn't seem to work very well.  This is where I also look to Eliot’s call for hope, words that echo those of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century Christian mystic, “And all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”  Even if we find ourselves in a mess again, faith calls us to trust and continue on, for all shall be well.  

All shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well - maybe it doesn't feel like it right now but can I, can we, hang onto that in the darkness?  Can we trust as Adams tells us that there are enough resources, human and divine, to change things, to make a difference?  As Unitarian Universalists, as people of liberal faith, we are called to be people of hope…people who believe that all shall be well.   So we trust that this too shall pass, that we have the resources to address the problems, and while we may not see it now, we can work to make it better.  

For those longing for the past, angry about the state of the world (and they are not wrong, there is a lot to be angry about), there is a deep longing for what is missing.  While some look forward, they look to the past, thinking if we just went back to the way things were, that things would change. How often have we engaged in this type of thinking?  It can take on many different guises. There is the “If only I had done x instead of y” then I wouldn’t be here.  There is blame, “If only so and so had been elected or not elected than we wouldn’t be here.”  Yet here we are, having made the choices we made.  It is a type of thinking that we can all engage in from time to time.  

How do we break free of this “what if” or “only if” thinking?  I think it begins with the realization, that we cannot truly know whether a different choice would have been better or worse.  We hope that as we gain maturity and wisdom our ability to make choices gets better.  Certainly as we get older, we have more experience both in making choices and in the information we have to make choices.  When I think about the struggles with depression that many of our youth and young adults experience, something I too experienced, I realize now that often youth and young adult s simply do not have enough life experience to know that things will change.  That we can be assured of one thing, the wheel will turn again and things will change.  So reminding ourselves, being gentle with ourselves, that maybe we did the best we could at the time and that the next time, and, for the most part, there will be a next time, we can make different choices, hopefully better ones.

In my own life, I experienced this with moving.  Back in 2000 my partner, Donna and I decided to buy our first house. Friends and family had been asking when we were finally going to buy.  Mollie was about a year old and it seemed like the right next step.  We ended up buying a house that we liked but not in a location we particularly liked. We were far away from the UU congregation we had joined, from my family and all that we had known.  We lived our life in two places – our house in one place and work, family and faith community in another.  We never truly settled into our new community.  When in 2004 we moved to Berkeley, we made the very conscious decision to be fully where we were living.  We joined a congregation in Berkeley, we built a life where we were living rather than having a house one place and our life in another.  It was a rather painful, not to mention expensive lesson but we learned that the importance of both having our home where our life is and to create our life where our home is.  In some ways this has been a recurring theme in my life…as someone who has wandered a bit in her life growing up in CA, college in Washington, DC, having lived in Maryland, different parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and now in Williamsburg, VA – I need to remember to create my life where I am living and not try to create a life in a place of the past or far away from where I am living.   Ah yes, to arrive where I started and know the place for the first time and being able to make different and better choices.

Another way of thinking about all of this is the image of the labyrinth.  As you know from the labyrinth on your grounds, a labyrinth is a spiral or a circle and the path leads in, sometimes bringing you quite close to the center, while then leading you back to the edge. The path takes you in and out and around and will lead to the center and then the path takes you back to where you began.  I know for myself each time I walk a labyrinth, no matter how many times I have walked a particular one, there is always something new to see, maybe some of you have had that experience here. One of my favorite labyrinth’s is the Jerusalem Mile labyrinth that looks out over the city of Richmond at the Richmond Hills Retreat Center.  Every time I walk it I try to stop at each of the corners, look out over the city, and each time it is new, each time I see something different. Even the path itself feels different each time I walk it.

What if we viewed time as more of a labyrinth rather than a line?  What if we re-connected with the ancient wisdom of living in a cycle of seasons rather than the notion that life proceeds in a straight line with a beginning, a middle and an end?  How might that change our celebrations this New Year’s Eve?  How might that change the way we reflect on our lives and our future?

Seeing time as a spiral does not mean a rote repetition.  It is a pattern with variation – much like the seasons. Some winters are colder; some summers have more rain and others less.  While the pattern repeats, there is variation making each cycle through unique.  

The labyrinth teaches us that even when we are on the edge we are still on the path to the center.   Even when it feels like we will never get there, if we trust the path, continue with the journey, we will reach the center.  What if the twists and turns, even the ones that seem so mistaken, are all part of the journey?  What if we are called to trust this life path, to trust that the life we are living is not in vain? What if the journey is the point of it all?  The spiral calls us to embrace the sorrow and the joy, the light and the dark, the rocky hard path and the smooth plain, for each is part of the journey.  A friend of mine the other day shared with me this quote from John Steinbeck, “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

So where is the journey taking you?  Where is it taking us?  Are we willing travelers or are we busy making plans, creating safeguards against danger?  Or are we embracing the unknown and continuing our exploring?  Are we taking a trip or are we letting the trip take us?
And we do not have to do this alone.  Who have we invited to take this journey of life with us?  What communities are we a part of?  What individuals – friends, family, spouses do we share our journey with?  We can help each other through the rough spots.  Who in your life could use the reminder “And all shall be well”?  Who in your life can remind you?  

How are you as a faith community on a journey together?  What have you learned?  What are your hopes?  I was reading your vision and plans for the future.  The vision draws on what you have done and learned before – you did not leave it behind rather you have brought what you have learned forward.  It is a vision that serves not just those of you here right now, but a vision that reaches out to those not yet here.  

At this threshold of the year, a time of one year ending and another beginning I invite us to see the year as a spiral rather than a line; the journey as the point itself rather than a race to a destination.  We are once again at the beginning, we started on Jan. 1, 2012 and now we stand on precipice of Jan. 1, 2013.  As we stand at the end, which is also the beginning, what have we learned?  Are we longing for something from this past year or years past?  What is at the root of that longing?  Have we reached the end of a particular season of our life?  Is it time to try something new?  What do we notice about this place, this familiar place, for the first time?  Are we saying “Oh No Not this AGAIN?”! Are we saying “Oh yes this Again!”? If not this again, what do we know now that can help us with the current situation?  If Oh yes this again, can we stop, be still and take it in?  

So I invite you to take this moment, in many ways an arbitrary moment, of this changing of the calendar year, to reflect, and to know this year for the first time.     

Monday, November 12, 2012

Reflection on Race and Privilige

Last week, a young adult of color posted about being excited to vote in a presidential election for the first time and how she was making sure she had two forms of ID and "dared anyone to keep her from voting."  Her post reminded me of how excited I was to vote in my first presidential election.  I was a Junior at Georgetown University and I voted absentee in my home state of California.  I gave no thought to having the right ID to vote, no one was talking about voter fraud and as a white young adult - it never dawned on me that other people did not have the same ease of voting that I possessed.

I have learned a lot about race and privilege over the years since I graduated from Georgetown and I have learned most of it outside of the walls of a classroom.  I continue to learn new things about the history of race in this country.  I have learned that simply because of the color of my skin I am given undeserved privilege - including not having to know the reality of the lives of people of color - either in the past and even in the present.  I am grateful for the opportunity to have my eyes opened - to becoming more aware and sitting in the more uncomfortable place of knowing.  I am not perfect, I have not learned it all and I hope that throughout the rest of my life I will continue to learn, to continue to know more.

So as I went to the polls to vote I thought of the 7 hours of waiting some have done in Florida, how white leaders have sought to limit and suppress voting rights, I remembered Ohio where the Secretary of State who defied court orders to count the votes, and I thought of this young woman who is voting for president for the first time.  Even now, after the election, I will remember that I have an obligation to work to ensure that her excitement continues and her right to vote is never taken away.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Forming Unitarian Universalist Identity

I have been reflecting a great deal on the importance of worship in our children's lives.  I wrote this article for the July Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists newsletter.  This summer we are embarking on a journey of All Ages Worship throughout July and August.  We are also trying a 6 sessions of a "second-hour" of faith development for all ages.   I know that without a regular presence in worship we will continue to lose our youth. I know that my own daughter learned early that she was not wanted and nor should she want to be in worship.  This does not bode well for her desiring to stay within our faith community when she is an adult.

Forming Unitarian Universalist Identity
WUU Newsletter July 2012

This summer WUU has embarked on a journey of all ages worshipping together each Sunday through July and August.  This is not an easy journey and the way is not clearly marked.  Yet it is through being in, participating in and experiencing worship that we all learn to be Unitarian Universalists.

Let’s think about this together for a moment; what is the most common shared experience in our faith community?  It is worship and for some that is the only experience they have in our faith community.  For most adults it is the primary way they learn to become a Unitarian Universalist.

We have heard the story over and over again, “I visited a UU congregation (meaning I attended worship) and I knew I was home.”  Maybe this is your story.  The primary way people connect with each other is during and after the worship service.  The experience is deepened by orientation, small group ministries, taking a class or participating in a social justice project.  Becoming a Unitarian Universalist is deepened even more when we choose to join in the work of our faith community – becoming a member of the Sunday Morning Team, joining the grounds committee, teaching a class, becoming a worship associate.

Yet it all begins with the worship experience.  If we are to provide an environment where our children and youth learn what it means to be Unitarian Universalist, then they need to be in worship.  It is in worship that they experience the most common shared experience of Unitarian Universalists.  They learn to sing, to share joys and sorrows, to listen.  They learn by watching what is going on and by the example of those around them.  In Children’s Chapel, even though I give them the option to speak their joys and sorrows, most place their stone in water silently – having watched and participated during worship in the sanctuary.

During my graduate studies I took a class on Religion and Popular Culture and we watched a video that documented the world of snake handling Pentecostals in Appalachia.  There services lasted more than an hour and children of all ages were present with their families. I was struck by how the children were included in the worship service and how they began to follow the example of the adults – copying their actions.  The children were being formed in the faith of their families, not by learning about it in a class but by participating in it with their parents. Isn’t our faith just as worthy of passing on to our children?

Ours is a covenantal, relational faith. We are bound together by the community we make together and the promises we make to each other.  We have found a place here, Unitarian Universalism is good news to us.  Don’t we want to share and pass on that good news to our children?  Don’t we want them to be formed in a faith community that cares for them, supports their search for truth and meaning – giving them tools for the journey?  All of us worshipping together is a way that we pass on the best of who we are to our children.  They learn to live in covenanted community by being a part of it.

I hope all of you will participate in this summer experience by welcoming our children. Invite a child to sit with you as a worship pal, a worship mentor and spiritual guide so that our children find faithful adults beyond their own parents.  By embracing this experience we just might find that we all gain more than we imagined and come away more spiritually fed.

I close with the words from Antoine de St.-ExupĂ©ry, from the reading “Generation to Generation”: “Let us build memories in our children, lest they drag our joyless lives, lest they allow treasures to be lost because they have not been given the keys.  We live, not by things, but by the meanings of things.  It is needful to transmit the passwords from generation to generation.”

Thursday, June 14, 2012

When the Work Breaks Your Heart

Yesterday was one of those days where my work as a professional religious educator just all caught up with me and my heart was just breaking. Now this is not entirely surprising. It is June, a time when we transition from the full church year calendar to the summer schedule and, at the same time, planning for September begins.  By this point in the year religious professionals are tired, counting the days until vacation and study leave begin.  For others who are transitioning it is even more exhausting as they are saying goodbye, packing and getting ready to begin somewhere new.

For me yesterday the heart break came because it feels so hard to get Unitarian Universalists, particularly those who are not parents, to see our ministry with our children and youth as important, as critical to our congregational lives.  As UU's most of our congregations send our children out to separate space during worship, bringing us together in multi-generational community only occasionally.  When we gather a workshop or gathering that relates to faith development (religious education) many see that as something only for the parents.  Recruiting volunteers to teach is the hardest job and requires a tough skin to be told no or more commonly just ignored.   One is ignored both by parents and by the adults without young children. Sometimes I feel like I am apologizing for asking at all instead of inviting them to the great privilege of spending time with our children and youth.

While things are definitely shifting in many places within Unitarian Universalism, the old cultural model of a 1950's Sunday School where parents teach, children are rarely seen and whether or not our children remain UU throughout their lives is not seen as very important, continue to hold on.  Adults with grown children often feel like they did their part, they taught when their children were young and today's parents should do the same.  There is a continued attitude that children don't need to be or belong in worship and therefore they are sent out sometimes after a few minutes in the worship service or sometimes they are not in worship at all. This attitude is not just among those without young children at home, many parents don't want their children in worship either.  Maybe this is the one hour a week they can devote any time to their spiritual lives and the pressure to keep children quiet and well-behaved is just too much.  Even today the question of whether part of the task of our faith communities is to raise life-long Unitarian Universalists is on the table.  While among religious professionals this has shifted it is still a somewhat radical thing to say when we want our children and youth (and our adults) to be life-long UU's.  It is certainly radical to talk about creating multi-generational communities that worship and learn together.

My heart breaks because I love our children and youth - and I know others do as well. I know the people in my congregation who love teaching - those with and without children.  I loved having one of our high school youth this year who embraced fully the task of teaching and did it with joy.  Those are the days of hope and joy in the work.

And when I can't get people to say yes, when the teaching schedule goes unfilled and the workshop unattended, I just want to cry.  It is easy to go to a place of thinking that UU's just don't care about their children and youth.

I know people care, I know our congregations care and I know that if I asked them that question they would say they care.  On one level we all know faith development is important.  I know also that telling a story that people don't care is neither helpful nor true.  Yet it is also dangerous to fall into the story that people care and that there are good reasons why people don't volunteer, don't show up etc.  At some point our care has to translate into action.  It has to translate into people showing up.  So yes we as UU's do care about our children and youth and the question maybe is do we care enough to change?  To give our time? To find new ways that work for this new world in which we find ourselves?

Connie Goodbread a UU District professional says "Faith Development is all we do, Unitarian Universalism is all we teach, and the congregation is the curriculum."  What would our faith communities look like if we lived that out? Would my long-held dream of a line of people outside my door ready to volunteer to teach our children, youth and adults appear?  Would we place faith development at the center - not just a program to keep our children and youth occupied while the adults worship? Would we take seriously the nurturing and fostering of each person's soul - to grow a soul as William Ellery Channing said?  Would we risk failing if it meant trying something new, something bold? Could we learn from what didn't work (not just say well we will never do THAT again) and be willing to try something bold again?

Today I begin again. I remind myself why I love this ministry and why it is so important.  Yet I know my heart will break again.  There will be other days when the work is lonely and hard and I wonder why I keep doing it.

So I close with these words from Wayne Arnason:
Take courage friends
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
Take courage,
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Celebrating Our Choices

I preached this sermon last Sunday, May 13, 2012 on Mother's Day.
The text for the sermon is Marge Piercy's poem "Sabbath of Mutual Respect"

“Praise our choices Sisters!”  There is not a lot of praise going on these days around the questions of women and choice.  In fact choice is pitted against life – you are either pro-choice or pro-life – one cannot be both.  Yet to live is to make choices every day, every day we choose whether to bless the world or not.
This year in particular much debate has been ranging about women and motherhood – not just about abortion but also contraception, working mothers versus stay at home mothers.  Women who have spoken up for reproductive freedom have been vilified as sluts, as selfish and unnatural.  We have seen “personhood bills” seeking to give full rights of “personhood” to fetuses while ignoring the personhood of the women whose bodies carry them.

Marge Piercy’s poem calls us into the sacredness of our choices – those lives we have chosen and those we have not.  She calls on us to remember the lineage of women who have literally put their bodies on the line so that others would not have to.  Yet generation after generation seems to have to rise up again, speak up again.

As I reflected on this sermon and what I wanted to say, I have to say I continue to be shocked that in 2012 we are still arguing about such basic things like contraception, the right of people to decide the size of their families or whether to have children at all.  As a former Roman Catholic , I continue to just be so deeply saddened that the litmus test for being a good Catholic is not about bringing a message of God’s love to the world, feeding the hungry, making the world a more just place, but rather an obsession on whether or not one is using contraception, same sex couples getting married, abortion and women’s rights.  It sadness me because that is not the best of what the Catholic church taught me – the best of what it taught me is that God longs for loving relationship with each of us, that the measure of our lives is how much of that love we manifest in the world. I was taught that there was nothing Jesus did that I could not do and that God needed my hands and feet in the world. Yet the measure of being a “good Catholic” is whether or not you agree with the Vatican’s teachings on birth control, abortion and sexuality.  No matter how much a group or an individual may embrace the Church’s social justice teachings – on war, poverty, labor, the death penalty - if a group or leader is not speaking out on these narrow issues than they are not good Catholics.

What disturbs me most deeply is that the Catholic church and other conservative Christian churches seem to have staked the moral, religious voice on these issues. Once again, those are who are pro-choice, pro LGBTQ rights, do not seem to have a religious voice in the public square.   The case is made on a rights basis – not on holy sacred ground.  Yet I want to say with Marge Piercy – our choices are sacred. She writes “To bear children or not to bear by choice is holy.” It is holy...just sit with that for a moment.

How might our public debate change if we, who support women and their choices, spoke out that our choices are sacred, are holy.  Imagine just for a moment that we saw choice making as a sacred, holy act and in our public square said that our laws, must support the holiness and sacredness of choice.

As Piercy points out that the freedom to choose is not just about laws and policies. It is also about a freedom from poverty, fear or hunger.  I wonder how many women today are truly choosing from a place of freedom and abundance.  How many cannot prevent pregnancy because they cannot afford or do not have access to contraception?  What about those who are living in fear of a partner or spouse who does not want them to use contraception – who takes away the freedom of choice as part of their power over their partner?  What about those women who choose to end a pregnancy because they know they cannot afford to bring a child into the world?  Is this truly choice?

Piercy also reminds us that our diversity choices is a good and sacred thing. She reminds us to praise the lives we did not choose.   In our public discourse it is said one is either pro-life or pro-choice.  I reject that. I am both pro-choice and pro-life.  I have been blessed in my life to be able to choose to bring an amazing daughter into this world –  Donna and I made that choice and that choice was a choice for life. Yet there are those who have said that I should not have that choice; that my beautiful daughter should not be here because her parents are two moms.  My cousin chose not to have any children and there are those that would either pity her or condemn her as selfish. Natalie shared with us this morning about the choice to have a third child.  Do any of these choices diminish the others?    Do we need everyone to make the same choices we have made in order to validate us, to assure us that we did or are doing the right thing?

This debate over choice extends then to how children should be raised.  Once again we see the debates pitting one over the other.  So either we are practicing attachment parenting or free range.  Each camp has its strident adherents – condemning those who do not practice their way of parenting.  At the heart of parenting, one might say the heart of living, is doing one’s best to make the best choices one can in the day to day.   All of us will do so imperfectly.  At our best we learn from our mistakes and begin again.  As Natalie shared parenting is hard work and messy and some days we will do it better than others.

Of course our ability to choose is not absolute.  As James Luther Adams reminds we are both fated and free.  Our ability to choose is shaped not just by our own desire and reason, it is  shaped by time, place and others around us.  We are not simply rational individuals making choices in a vacuum.  We are connected people shaped by the past and present, by our connections and relationships.  It is also true that no matter how much we may want or choose a particular thing, we may not be able to achieve it. The myth of America of course is that with enough hard work, each of us can do anything. This weekend at commencement addresses all over the country, young people will be told that they can achieve anything they set their minds too. This is simply not the case.

In talking about women and choices, we must also remember all those who women who long to be pregnant, to raise a child and cannot. They cannot for any number of reasons – they are infertile, they cannot afford it, they are not mentally or physically capable of raising a child, they are incarcerated.  We remember women who have suffered a miscarriage or still birth.  We remember women both in our own country and around the world, who die in childbirth.  In 2012 it is still the fact that 350,000 women and girls die every year as a result of preventable pregnancy and childbirth complications.  It seems to me that these lives are lost in the midst of our debates.  They are the silent victims – lost amidst the arguments.

Today we honor and celebrate our mothers, those who at their best are “the ones that love us best of all” as Max says in Where the Wild Things Are.  The ones who get mad and call their children “wild things”; who send their children to bed without dinner and then bring it in and “it is still hot.”  In the midst of our celebrating – whether we are going to brunch, video calling, or grieving our mothers and grandmothers who have passed – let us honor their choices.  Let us honor mothers today with a pledge to make create a world where “Habondia, the real abundance, the power to say yes and to say no, to open and to close, to take or to leave” exists for every person. May we work for a world where each child comes into this world to find a home filled with love – whether that home is with a mother and father, or two mothers or two fathers or a single parent; whether that child finds a home with the one who gave birth or one who adopts. Let us celebrate the women who choose not to be mothers – who nurture the next generation by being fabulous aunts, mentors, coaches and friends.  Let us honor all the ways of parenting – knowing that at the heart of the role of parent is to love – fiercely and tenderly.   May we rise up and praise our choices!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Sweet Darkness

The text for this sermon is the poet "Sweet Darkness" by David Whyte.  Here is a link to the text:

This sermon was preached on February 26, 2012 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Rappahannock in White Stone, VA.

This poem by David Whyte has been one of my favorites for many years now.  It has been sitting with me through these winter months.  It was the text that would not leave me as I was asked to provide a description for my sermon this morning. 

The poet calls us into the dark, not as a place of death and decay but rather a place of renewal and re-birth.   This runs counter to the messages of our culture.  We fill our homes with artificial light and we even adjust our clocks to give us “daylight savings” rather than just flowing with the natural rhythms of the season.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love electricity and was totally miserable following Hurricane Irene when we were without power for 5 days.  Yet in our quest to avoid the darkness, we miss out on the gifts it has to give.
Our culture’s desire to avoid darkness is not just being without light as in nighttime and short daylight hours in the winter here in North America, it also refers to our avoiding the dark and painful times and places in our lives. After all we are fed a steady diet that says if we just had this product or service, or this job or the right whatever it is…we would always be happy and satisfied.  

Yet darkness is as part of life just a night follows day and winter follows fall and summer.  We will have dark times in our lives. Times of grief and uncertainty, times when our vision has gone and no part of the world can find us.  What are the gifts of darkness and what might it have to teach us, if we surrendered to it rather than fought it?

Some in this room I know have faced deep darkness in their lives; maybe even battled deep clinical depression so a word of caution here.  There are some who fall into the darkness of depression and cannot find their way out.  They seek help and despite all the therapy and medications, they cannot find their way out of the dark.  This kind of depression should not be dismissed or simply chalked up to a phase. Parker J. Palmer, author of Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation and many other books, speaks eloquently of his battles with clinical depression and from which he has found deep spiritual meaning, warns us that what works for some will not work for others. For some seeing a deep spiritual journey will be helpful and for some it will not. Palmer when asked by another person battling with depression why some recover and others do not; he answered honestly “I do not know.”  We do not know and while we can accompany others on their journey, we cannot truly know what another is experiencing.  

Palmer tells us that he shares his story of depression in part to let the young know that darkness and pain are a part of life.  I think Palmer is right when he tells us that we disservice the young when we do not talk about the hard times of our lives; about loneliness, loss of vision, uncertainty.  We need to speak that it is a part of the human experience to have periods of darkness and that that are part of the cycle of life.  It may not make the challenging times easier but maybe at least less shocking when they come.

What can this loss of vision look like?  Thankfully most of us will be spared the pain of deep clinical depression. The kind of despair that does not allow one to get out of bed in the morning or that prevents us from enjoying the beauty of a sunny day.  Yet we have had those times when maybe we have said how “stressed out” we are, or things that once brought joy and meaning are no longer the same.  Maybe the bleakness comes as a result of a loss … loss of a person, a job, a dream. Sometimes we know exactly why we are now in a period of darkness and other times it can catch us unaware and off guard. 

This fall and winter, the darkness came as I was so immersed in the doing.  Rev. Jennifer Ryu, Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists minister, who I work with, was on sabbatical and it was incredibly busy fall.  As so often happens when things get busy, two things happened, I stopped taking care of myself and I tried to do everything myself.  In being so busy, I fell out of touch with me.  I stopped paying attention and being aware – I kept doing and didn’t take much time to just be.  For me I experienced that first line of the poem “When your vision has gone.”  The busier I was with the details of all that needed to be done, the more I lost sight of the bigger picture. If you will … all I could see were the trees and no forest.  I didn’t feel like I could take the time to stop, to step back, to breathe. I needed the ‘sweet darkness’ that David Whyte speaks of.
So what does sweet darkness look like?  The darkness for me truly was this desire to enter into a place that would hold me, nurture me and remind of who I am.   I knew that I needed to step back even as I kept doing.  So as the fall fell into more of rhythm and Jennifer returned in December I acknowledged how tired I truly was.  I was more gentle with myself.  I reached out to friends and while I was still busy, I had a heightened sense of awareness that I needed to be gentle with myself.  Did I do this perfectly?  Absolutely not.

I am grateful for the time I took off between Christmas and New Year’s.  I had hoped for a time to focus on the house and getting things done there or maybe even to do some reading … expecting once again that doing more would be the remedy. Entering and embracing the dark as renewing force is not easy; surrender is not an easy thing to do.  Yet for the first week, all I wanted to do was nothing.  I needed to do nothing.  I slept; I hung out with my family and did a lot of nothing. This time allowed me to relax into the darkness and recognize a need to taste its sweetness.

So, once I returned to work after vacation, I made plans for my silent retreat.  Silent retreats are amazing and have been a place for me to return to myself.  I have done numerous group silent retreats, the first time when I was a senior in college.  A different type of community is formed when as a group you consciously chose to enter silence.  I have always done directed retreats, meaning that I have met daily with a spiritual director. In meeting with a director, I get a listening ear, sometimes a practice to try or a text to reflect on.  It is important for me to get that feedback so I don’t just stay stuck in my own head. In this retreating and deep relating I begin to taste the sweetness of the deep.

I just came off three days of silent retreat at Richmond Hill.  It is a little different when you are in silence and others are not.  Yet it is just as powerful.  I spent my days in prayer, participating in the daily prayer life of Richmond Hill, walking the labyrinth and reading.  In stepping away from e-mail, phone, work and even home, I was able to get quiet and listen.  

Part of the retreat, was to intentionally step into the darkness, to embrace the horizon that one can only see in the dark.  For me that meant spending a lot of hours alone, in prayer and in reading; I paid attention to what drew me, so the library at Richmond Hill had Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle and I re-read it along with the two sequel novels.  I also re-read Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak.  On the one hand it was incredibly renewing and restful and yet I was also struck as I came home that I had done a lot of work.  I had gone deep into myself.  I kept my journal with me constantly, writing in it multiple times a day. It truly was a journey deep within.

Palmer writes of this downward, inward journey.  He is not alone, there is also Thomas Merton, the mystics like Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross and many others.  Poets, artists, theologians of all traditions, speak of this journey deep within. For Palmer this downward, inward journey is necessary for an authentic spiritual life.  The spiritual life is not all about beautiful sunsets and walks on the beach; it is also about death and dying for we live knowing that we will die.   It is about dealing authentically with evil. The spiritual life is about embracing all of life – its joy, sorrow, good, bad, the most holy and the most profane.   It is the world that tries to sell life without death, joy without sorrow, and an endless string of satisfaction and happiness. Embracing this journey, we can gain clarity around what we need to let go of in order to make room for something else.

The downward, inward journey will require us to be real with ourselves, to confront our gifts and blessings, as well as our faults and failings.  It is becoming our whole self.  Florida Scott Maxwell puts it this way, “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours.  When you truly possess all you have been and done…you are fierce with reality.”  You are fierce with reality.  This downward, inward journey is not an escape from ourselves and the world, it is a journey to reality, a journey to become fierce with reality.
The poet says it another way, this journey into the dark, will remind you that the world is meant to be free in and to give up the world in which we don’t belong.  What might some of these worlds be? Again, Palmer provides insight.  On the journey to the authentic self and authentic vocation, there are those in our lives who will tell us who we are and who we are meant to be.  Often we spend much of our lives living up to these expectations of others.  Maybe these expectations come from family or friends or the culture at large that seeks to tell us what will make us happy, fulfilled, and successful.  Often however these signs of success are based on external things like status, income and wealth.  After all we privilege certain kinds of work over others – like the work of the mind over the work of the hands.  Isn’t this at the heart of the “mid-life” crisis?  This crisis of identity, the “Is this all there is?”
The poet calls us to give up all these other worlds, to only be in the one in which we belong, the one in which we can be our authentic selves.  Sometimes the only way to find that place is to enter into darkness, into silence, into solitude where we find “the sweet confinement of our aloneness.”

The poet ends leaves us with the injunction to give up anything or anyone that does not bring you alive.  This is a tough injunction.  In essence the poet calls us to live authentically and to release ourselves from the expectations of those things and those people who want us to live their lives, their dreams, their expectations rather than a life of the authentic self.  In discussing his depression, Palmer speaks of those who were most helpful to him.  Those who were most helpful did not try to “fix” his depression, did not offer advice, they sat with him often in silence – silently witnessing to his pain.  One man came every day and with Palmer’s permission, removed his shoes and socks, and massaged his feet.   He witnessed and stayed with him in the pain.  So often when we see another’s suffering we want to rush in with advice and the desire to fix it.  Sometimes, all that is needed, and what is most hard to give, is to simply stay present, in the moment, bearing witness to another’s pain and suffering.  Palmer quotes poet Rainer Maria Rilke “love … consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.”  To say it another way, Palmer writes, “By standing respectfully and faithfully at the borders of another’s solitude, we may mediate the love of God to a person who needs something deeper than any human being can give.”

The darkness is not an easy place to journey, this journey downward and inward.  It can feel like avoidance and denial are much better alternatives.  Yet without the darkness, how are we to know the light?  Without pain, how can we truly know joy? Without tears, laughter?  In Wrinkle in Time, the children travel to another planet completely shadowed in darkness, completely controlled by a singular entity that does all its thinking for it.  This is not the sweet darkness of the downward, inward journey but rather the darkness of those powers that would seek to annihilate the authentic life.  IT, a huge brain controls the entire planet and it has imprisoned Mr. Murray and will not let him go.  IT promises peace, freedom from thought, no pain, no sickness, no suffering.  Everyone on the planet operates on the same schedule every day, every week through the year.  The children bounce their balls and jump rope in the same rhythm…no diversity, no need for independent decision making.  There may be no suffering on this planet, but there is no joy either.  The people are not truly alive.  

To be truly alive is to know pain and darkness.  It is also to know love and joy.  To become fully human, fully alive is to become fierce with reality.  To become fierce with reality we must embrace the totality of who we have been and who we are.  

Palmer ends Let Your Life Speak with a meditation on the seasons. For the journey to the authentic self is not a linear journey that one takes once and then is done.  It is more like the labyrinth, the spiral.  As many of you know, when one walks a labyrinth, one walks around sometimes drawing close to the center and other times walking on the edge.  To reach the center, you must circle around and around, in and out until you arrive and then you take the same journey out.  It is a powerful metaphor for the spiritual life.  We spiral around, sometimes close to the center and sometimes way out on the edge.   It is an endless cycle like the seasons of the year. Palmer writes, “Our lives participate in the myth of eternal return: we circle around and spiral down, never finally answering the questions Who am I? and Whose am I?”  In his reflection on winter he writes, “Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives.”  
So I invite you to embrace this journey.  I invite you to explore the gifts darkness can offer, gifts of vision and insight.  I invite you to accompany others by standing next to them, witnessing their journey, without the need to fix, to offer advice and without turning away.  I invite you into the sweet confinement of your aloneness.  Blessed Be.