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Advent Sermon: Waiting for the Gifts of the Spirit
December 3, 2008, 3:06 pm
Filed under: Family Ministry, Sermons and a Whole Lot More | Tags: , , , ,

November 30, 2008

 UU Society of Sacramento, CA 

Advent:  Waiting for the Gifts of the Spirit


Hymns              For the Beauty of the Earth, I’ve Got Peace Like a River, Give Yourself to Love.


Conversation with Children


Today I’m inviting you to join me in an experiment in what is called mindfulness mediation.  (“Oh, no,” a girl shudders; “Does that involve sitting still?”) 

As a matter of fact it does involve sitting still.  We’re going to sit together for half a minute or so, in silence, and just see what it feels like.  We’ll sit here and just pay attention to our breathing.  You might see or hear squirming or squealing or chattering around us, but that’s okay.  Just notice it and let it happen.  Notice what it feels like to be sitting on the floor, to be breathing.  You may have thoughts go through your mind; they will come and go, come and go.  Just let them.  You adults in the chairs are invited just to notice what’s going on with you, too.  Let’s see what it feels like.  I will ring this chime to start our meditation time and to end it. 

(30 seconds pass.)  What did you notice?  Let’s start on the right side here and go around the circle to see if any of you wants to say something.  “I noticed I was hungry.”  “I noticed I felt weird.”  “I noticed it was boring.”  “I noticed I felt peace.”  “I noticed I was thirsty.” 

All these experiences are some of the most common things that people say after they meditate.  It’s interesting what we notice when we pay attention.  I want to let you know that you can do this experiment with yourself any place and at anytime you want to.  Thank you for your attention and participation, and I look forward to seeing you after the service.


Reading             Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House  

A poem by Billy Collins




As my first Christmas with this congregation approaches, I have a confession to make.  For most of my life I have had an ambivalent relationship to Christmas.  It’s not so much a love/hate relationship with the holiday season.  No, depending on circumstances, I either like it or loathe it.  I won’t go into the whole sad story of my materialistic childhood or the let down of my college Christmas homecomings.  I know many people and families who have borne much heavier holiday-season hardships.  I was blessed in many ways, and I am today.  Even so, I can identify with Dr. Seuss’s Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and I’m sure the Grinch came from a dysfunctional family.

I know there are others like me who have Grinches lurking in the shadows of the soul, or maybe just nagging little gremlins, supplying their unique and personal reasons for holiday ambivalence.  For some, it’s being part of a non-Christian spiritual practice or faith in the midst of society’s dominant religion.  For others it’s the frustration of trying to find the peaceful message of Jesus’ holy birth amid the idolatry of commercialism.  And many of us are burdened by the high expectations that we put on one another and ourselves at this time. We may feel as if we are on a holiday treadmill:  so many things to prepare for, pay for, do, attend, host, drive to, buy, wrap, write, send, give, reciprocate for, eat, drink, and remember not to forget, all in a few weeks’ time.  Oh, and of course there is the expectation look happy while you’re at it!  We pack so many expectations into building toward the climactic day of December 25th. This can set us up for a letdown.

As a young adult I took a second look at the Christian tradition, which I had left behind in college, and I found some freedom in it.  My adult-level introduction to the Christian liturgical tradition was through the Episcopal Church.  Thanks to its lesbian and gay outreach and its campus ministry in my university town, I began friendships with active lay persons there as well as clergy.  Though my friends occupied the liberal wing of the Episcopal Church regarding social concerns, when it came to the calendar of the church year they were traditionalists.  For them, Christmas did not begin on the day after Thanksgiving, but nearly a month later, at a Christmas Eve church service.  Some still wait until the day of Christmas Eve for the hanging of the greens and trimming of the tree.  The season is called Christmastide, and it goes from December 25 until January 6.  Hence the 12 days of Christmas, made famous in the song about the gifts of three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.  January 6 is the beginning of the season of Epiphany, and the day that marks the visit of the Wise Men bearing gifts from the East. It’s also the day to take down the greens and dismantle the Christmas tree. 

In the traditional calendar, the season that leads up to Christmas is Advent.  The Advent season begins today and it covers the four Sundays before Christmas.  For centuries, Advent has been a time of reflection, a time of waiting and spiritual preparation.   Many churches that observe Advent hold off singing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve—instead, they sing hymns about waiting for the arrival of hope, love, joy and peace on earth.  Traditional Christians see that arrival in the birth of Jesus, and they celebrate it on Christmas.  Of course, some of us Unitarian Universalists don’t observe any Christian holidays.  Even so, our tradition affirms the possibility that the gifts of hope, love, joy and peace can arrive in any season of the year, at any moment.  And we affirm that these gifts can come to any person’s life.  Our religious tradition affirms that everyone is worthy of these gifts— hope, love, joy and peace —and everyone has a role to play in giving them to the world and to one another.

We all want peace on earth and joy in our hearts.  We want a world based on love and blessed with hope.  But Advent says:  Not so fast.  Whoever you are, in whatever faith tradition you might be–or in none at all– bringing forth such gifts will require patience.  We must learn to wait awhile. 

            Simone Weil, the 20th century French philosopher and social activist, writes:  “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”  The first time I read that, I said, “Oh, great! Patience!” 

            It’s true, though.  The practice of waiting and watching is found in many spiritual traditions.  The emotional pain of waiting comes from the idea that where we are going is the only place to be, from the certainty that what we are waiting for is just what we need.  We say:  Let’s tear open the wrapping and get to the good stuff.  Advent says:  Look inside first.  Unwrap your own attitudes and habits of mind. 

            Our own forbear Ralph Waldo Emerson splashes cold water on our face.  You may feel a lift in your hearts, he says, from political changes, economic improvements, recovery from sickness, the “return of an absent friend, or some other external event.”  This “raises your spirits,” Emerson says, “and you think good days are preparing for you.  Do not believe it.  It can never be so.  Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”

Henri Nouwen makes the observation that much of our waiting is really an attempt at controlling the future, trying to direct the future.  This is understandable, he says, for we live in “a world preoccupied with control.” 

Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest who taught and ministered in the fields of mental health and developmental disabilities in the U. S. and Canada until his death in 1996.  His writings on the spiritual life are popular in many denominations.  In an essay about the spirituality of Advent, Nowen writes:  “Waiting is not a very popular attitude….  Most people consider waiting a waste of time,” and for many of us “waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go….  People do not like such a place, [and] they want to get out of it by doing something.” The modern-day holiday season suits this urge just right.  Seldom are we without something to do.

In October I attended a five-day silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California.  It was a silent retreat, except for a brief time for questions before lunch and a sermon-like talk after dinner each night, known as a Dharma talk.  We had a couple of 45-minute group interviews with a teacher, but most of the time all 84 of us observed silence, practicing mindfulness throughout a daily schedule that alternated between sitting meditation and walking meditation, with silent meals together and a 45-minute job to break up the day, if not the silence we kept. 

The practice of meditation is to notice your experience every moment, accept it, and then experience the next moment.  The practice is to notice feelings and sensations, impulses and fleeting thoughts, but only to notice them, not to judge them, repress them, or hold on to them. 

The teaching is that our feelings and thoughts arise and pass away, arise and pass away, moment by moment.  The practice is to notice, to be present.  The primary anchor to the present moment is our breathing in and breathing out.  When the attention wanders or the mind gets hooked in reactions or in planning, kindly bring your attention back to the present, by watching the breath or noticing the sensations of the body. 
            It is simple, but it’s easier said than done.  That’s why, on retreat, we practice over several days.  Seeing your own habits of mind is humbling.  Coming face to face to face with your own reactions, attitudes and knee-jerk judgments can be embarrassing.

            One of our teachers suggested that we think of the practice of mindfulness as being companions to ourselves.  Imagine, she said, that you are visiting a friend who is sick in bed.  You give that person company for a long stretch of time, just being quiet.  Whatever your friend is experiencing, you are present.  It may take some effort, but you think the effort is worth it, and so is your friend.  We can show the same kindness and patience to ourselves.  We can be present with our own experience.  As we would with a loved one, we might say, “I’m here for you.”  We can be a companion to our feelings, even if we feel that we’d rather run out of the room.

In the words of Nouwen, the friend who cares is the friend who can wait with us, “who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, … who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness.”  We can learn to be a compassionate friend to ourselves, to watch and wait with ourselves.

Nouwen says that the activity of waiting  “is never a movement from nothing to something.  It is always a movement from something to something more.”  The key to waiting is the faith that where we are now, where we are in any moment, is worth our attention.  “The secret,” he says, “is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun.”  The moment we are waiting for is already here.  It is this moment. 

Here in the northern hemisphere, starting in December many people struggle with the growing time of darkness and the shorter days.  For some, the challenge can be clinical depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder, called SAD for short.  I have a friend in the Upper Midwest who has this.  She lessens her wintertime pain with special bright-light lamps, medication, and travel to places with a sunny climate, but so far it cannot be avoided altogether. While I don’t usually get heavily depressed as December comes and daylight hours dissipate, I do resent it.  I curse the shorter days.  I get up early to have as much daylight as possible and I work near windows as much as I can.  Even so, by late January I get squirrelly and cranky, with bouts of anxiety and loneliness.  

A popular quotation says you can curse the darkness or you can dare to light a candle against it.  This is really a metaphor about eliminating ignorance and injustice, but it’s how I feel sometimes about real darkness.

A teacher of mindfulness might say:   you can curse the darkness, or light a candle, or you can watch the darkness, every moment you’re in it, rather than fleeing it.  You can watch it, and notice yourself as you experience it.   Every day and every night are made of moments, and things change, moment by moment.  Even the quality of the darkness changes.  Last night I was driving to church at 5:00 PM, and I happened to notice the degrees of darkness and light that were in the sky.  I saw the color the sky gave off at that moment, and how it was changing.  I hope that, in the coming weeks and months, when I go outside at night, when I start to wish the night away, I can pause to see it and feel it, and know it as a companion. 

American poet Wendell Berry writes this about exploring the dark:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

            Nouwen says that impatient people “are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go there.  The moment is empty.”  I think that there are almost no totally “impatient people,” nor are there purely patient ones.  We all can experience impatient feelings, and we can let them drive us.  Yet, in the face of impatient feelings, we also can practice patience.  In spite of the temptation toward another moment instead of the present one, we can “dare to stay where [we] are.”  Nouwen says, “Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there.  Waiting . . . is not passive.  It involves nurturing the moment, the way we might nurture a child.”

            Most spiritual traditions teach that waiting and watching, learning and growing are done with the support and help of a community.  Furthermore, each one of us plays a role in providing the gifts that a community offers.  We do this just by showing up. 

When we gather in a spiritual community, we create a space for each other to wait. A Buddhist community is called a Sangha; that’s what a group of people become when we join together on retreat or just for an evening meditation—a Sangha.  My retreat leaders have said that Buddhism sees the Sangha just as important as the teachings themselves, and just as important as the Buddha, who set an example for the way to understanding and freedom.  During our five-day retreat, my 83 fellow meditators and I spoke only a few times, mostly at the beginning and the end of it.  Yet by showing up side-by-side for our meditation sessions, we supported one another in our practice of noticing and watching. 

Most of my meditating and praying take place when I am alone.  Yet I could not do it alone if I did not have the knowledge that others are also engaging in this practice, or if I did not have opportunities to be with others, to watch and wait together.  This applies to the Unitarian Universalist communities to which I have belonged.  I have my own values and hopes, my questions and answers, my aspirations, and my commitments.  But it is crucial that I join with others to explore, deepen and express these matters of ultimate concern.

Even though we could do so alone, by ourselves, we explore and speak our values together because the companionship can encourage us and give power to our affirmation.  Nouwen says that a spiritual community “is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously, so that it can grow and become stronger in us.”  We affirm the spirit in one another. We celebrate “what has already begun in [our lives].”  We affirm what is already there as we watch its fulfillment, day by day, year after year. 

In Morning Watch, her book of meditations, prayers and poems, my colleague the Reverend Barbara Pescan puts it this way: “When I am with you, my friends, I know better who it is in me that sings.”

The late composer John Cage caused one of the great musical controversies of the 20th century when he wrote a work in three movements entitled 4’ 33” [Four minutes and thirty-three seconds.]  During the performance, not a note of music is heard.  Those who defend this work, or at least appreciate its intent, note that its performance includes the sounds that the audience hears in the absence of music.  Hence each performance requires active attention, and each one is unique.  Even as much of Cage’s audience hated the work, even as they rejected it, they were made part of its creation!  In a sense, this is what happens here:  We each play a part in creating the experience of the service or other church activity that brings us together.

   When we gather in a religious community, we affirm the importance of taking some time to consider the questions that matter. John Cage writes:  “We are involved in a life that passes understanding and our highest business is our daily life.”

Our highest business, I believe, is also to reach out and lend a listening ear, to ask for the same in return, to speak from the heart with one another.  Our highest business is to offer an assuring presence, the kind of attentive gaze that says, “I’m here for you.”  We’re here for you.  We’re here for one another, with patience, kindness and compassion.  We’re here to receive the gifts of hope, love, joy and peace, and to share them with the world.  So may it be.  Amen. 


[Note:  please do not circulate on the internet; make printed copies only]

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “Self Reliance.”  1841.

Nouwen, Henri.  “Waiting for God,” the November 28 selection in Watch for the Light:  Readings for Advent and Christmas.  Plough Publishing House, 2001. 

Nouwen, Henri.  Out of Solitude.  2004, Ave Maria Press.

Cage, John.  From “Where Are We Going and What Are We Doing?” in Silence.


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