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Pastoral Prayer for UU worship service, July 20, 2014

Rev. Roger Jones, Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

Now please join me in a time of contemplation, in words and silence. Notice your feet on the floor and your body in the seat. Notice your breathing, in and out. Relax your eyes, whether open or closed.

O Spirit of the calm summer clouds, ease our souls, as we gather in reflection and in hope. We give thanks for those around us in this community of encouragement and welcome.

We give thanks for the gift of life and the gift of this new day.

Life is fragile and fleeting, and many of us are thinking of those we have lost, perhaps recently, or some time ago. Let us make the sound of their names now at this time and, by our speaking, let us bring them into the space of our sanctuary with us.

Life holds many kinds of challenge. We hold in our hearts those who need our good wishes and help for all kinds of struggle, and we offer our own burdens to compassion’s warm embrace. We ask for serenity, courage, and wisdom as we make each new step on the journey of life.

Life brings occasions for joy and gratitude. Let us call to mind the milestones and celebrations that lighten our spirits. Whether speaking aloud into the sanctuary or whispering to ourselves, let us now speak of our joys or those of others.

Many another’s good fortune lift our own hearts in praise of joy.

Life brings change to this hallowed spiritual home. As this congregation prepares to vacate this building for a year of construction, we recognize the dedication of our volunteers and staff members. Their vision, purpose, collaboration, reliability and generosity have brought us to this point of promise. We give thanks!

At the same time, we must look beyond these walls to the desperation and agony afflicting the human family. We lift up the people of many tragic scenes, including three in recent weeks or days. A Malaysian jetliner was destroyed by a missile fired from separatist rebel-held areas of Ukraine, killing hundreds of innocent adults and children. Fighting in the Gaza Strip in Palestine is now in its 13th day. The Israeli military and Palestinian Hamas militants ratchet up the violence, with Hamas missile strikes into Israel and a military incursion of tanks and troops into Palestine.   At last report, the lives lost include at least 5 Israelis and 336 Palestinians, including 65 dead children. [As of July 21, per the New York Times, 27 Israelis and 556 Palestinians have been killed.]  It was the killing of teenagers from both sides that sparked this wave of pain and chaos. It makes the heart weep.

On the United States border with Mexico, hundreds of thousands of Central American youngsters arrive as refugees from the destitution and violence of their home cities and villages.   While fragile children wait for mercy, U.S. government leaders vacillate and fight.   While some citizens argue, others go to guard the children or send money for basic needs.

We lift our voices to the sky to call for a world without violence. We long for a renewed wave of dignity and healing to cover the human family. We extend prayers for peace to all places of conflict and oppression, near and far.

May each of us have the courage to do what we can. May we choose the ways of peace and courage.

Now let us take silence together for a minute. May we come home to our breathing.   May we come home to the feelings of being alive. Now May the breath of life breathe in us a new sense of hope and the motivation to make that hope a reality. Blessed Be and Amen. Namaste.

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Learning Spirituality from Plants! Flower Celebration Sunday Message

Homily (Sermonette) by Rev. Roger from UUSS Flower Communion Sunday, June 2, 2013 (All-Ages Worship Service)

 

Writing in his journal in 1859, Henry David Thoreau says that “the mystery of the life of plants” is like the mystery of our own human lives. He cautions the scientist against trying to explain their growth “according to mechanical laws” or the way engineers might explain the machines that they make.   There is a magic ingredient, to go along with air and sun, earth, water and nutrients. There is one part miracle to every living thing, he says. The force of life. A force we can feel and recognize, but cannot create or control.

For my birthday I received a planter from our Religious Education staff person, Miranda.   To ensure its longevity I left it in her office, and it has flourished. But when she departed for two months in Ghana, a post-it note appeared on the planter: Roger, remember to water me.

            I am not reliable around green things. I have nearly killed off a cactus—a small one I got last Christmas. I remember when I was little, in school, planting seeds in Dixie cups with dirt an inch deep.   Watching the sprouts, helping them along; it was fun. Then, a few years later, a friend of the family helped me plant a garden in the back yard: green beans, tomatoes, onions. Delicious, for one or two summers.

But my horticultural karma was all downhill from there. In high school I mowed grass for a few neighbors and friends of my mom. One family had a large yard around their large house. They asked me to pull or cut out the weeds growing close to the house.  This was before the days of the weed-whacker, which would have been fun to use. Using my bare hands—not fun. So I drizzled gasoline on the weeds near the outside walls, all the way around. Killed all their weeds. Filled the house with fumes, I found out later.

To the good fortune of the plant kingdom, in my adult life I’ve never had a yard or a garden, nearly always lived in an apartment. Here in the church’s community garden, which we call UURTHSONG, a few summers ago at lunchtime I helped myself to a few meals of tomatoes and chard, but I haven’t dared to plant a garden plot.

I know many of you garden, with lovely flowers and gorgeous vegetables. You have citrus and plum and fig trees and so many other kinds. Some of you are Master Gardeners. Some of you sell plants for a living, or you work in landscaping and grounds-keeping.

Some of you volunteer with plants, like our member Jerry, who spends many a weekday tending the flowerbeds and flowerpots here at the church. Some of you, like Nancy and Gail, give tours at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center on the American River Parkway, among other outdoor places. Annie and other UUSS Waterbugs tend our thirsty trees and bushes year after year.

As I noted, my experience with plants is questionable, so I can’t be sure what it’s like for people who put hour after hour into the lives of growing green things. But this is what it might be like.   Planting, tending, watering, weeding, harvesting, transplanting… it involves a mix of your own physical power, and the patience to wait and see what happens. It calls for intention and effort, and then for humility.

            One cannot bring plants into bloom, or force them to bear fruit. You have to learn enough to know when and where to plant them, how much water and fertilizer to give, how much to weed, when to prune or plow over, and of course you need to know what not to do.

You do your part, waiting, watching, tending. You wait on the force of life. You wait on a miracle, an everyday ordinary miracle. Seeing a vine crawl, blossoms yielding fruit, colors calling for bees and other pollinating insects. Miracles happen a lot. But we can’t make them happen. We can’t make life happen.

I wonder if this is a helpful way to think about our spirituality. There are new and modern resources for spiritual growth, and there are ancient practices.   We can draw on all of them, of course.   Yet the main ingredient is paying attention. Watching ourselves, noticing reactions, sensations, desires. Observing the world around us—the plants, the people, the traffic, the sunlight. Gently tending to the needs around us.

Preparing ourselves.

Perhaps we can think of spiritual growth from the perspective of a faithful gardener.   Not a prizewinning perfectionist whose work is on the cover of a magazine. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I bet most of us aren’t up to that much effort in spiritual practice (or in gardening).

I’m thinking of a gardener like a humble companion, a curious visitor. As a humble gardener tending our own growth, we remember to check in with ourselves, on a regular basis. We notice the world around us. We tend our gardens. We wait in humility, and we remember to practice patience. We don’t worry about explaining too much, about figuring ourselves out, as if we were machines, predictable and controllable. We don’t try to fix, only to encourage, nurture, water and feed.

We can’t make plants grow, but we can help them, and watch the miracle happen. We can’t force ourselves to grow spiritually—and we certainly can’t make somebody else grow. But we can be present and attentive. Be intentional. Notice what might help, or ask. Practice a bit more patience.

Then, we can enjoy the results. We give thanks for what we are able to harvest, thanks for the results of our waiting and watching.

Give thanks for the ground of our being. And celebrate every ordinary miracle.

So may it be. Blessed be. Amen.

 



Atheism & Spirituality — Sermon Excerpt March 23, 2014

Spirituality has to do with renewal, when we take our worn lives and cultivate a new enthusiasm for what is ours. It’s about building bridges of connection between our solitary self and others. It’s about finding your place in the family of things, in the family of life.

When I meet people socially they often ask what I do, where I work. I usually tell them. In reply, they might say, “Oh, well, I’m an atheist.”

Their tone implies: If you’re angling to invite me to services, Mr. Minister, I’m off the hook! But I say, “Oh, good. I have plenty of atheists in my congregation! Agnostics too.”

. . .

I like to think of a UU congregation as an inter-faith community. We strive to welcome differences of theology while celebrating common ethical values. But it’s not easy.

It can feel vulnerable to speak from the heart, to express your personal views. When we dare to speak from the heart, it calls for trust and courage. When we ask another “What do you believe?” it calls for the practice of curiosity and a discipline of respect. Let us help one another to practice courage and respectful curiosity.

At our best, we can be an intentional inter-faith community. What holds us together in our diversity is a set of shared values, and a set of promises, which we call a covenant.

 

Listen to the whole sermon, and find others, at http://uuss.org/Sermons.



The Spirituality of Expectation–What Are You Waiting For? UUSS Sermon for December 8, 2013

 NOTE:  Many folks did not hear this sermon because the California International Marathon made it very hard to get to church.  It closes Fair Oaks Boulevard from Folsom, CA, to the Capitol.  Traffic near the church slows down as race fans try to find parking to walk over to Fair Oaks and as the police make drivers detour at both of our nearby intersections.  The first hymn was my conciliatory nod to the Marathon, but it remains an annual frustration!

 UU Society of Sacramento

Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2013

Shared Offering benefits St. John’s Shelter Program for Women & Children

Hymns:  #348 “Guide My Feet (While I Run this Race),” #100 “I’ve Got Peace Like a River,” #352, “Find a Stillness,” #91, “Mother of All.”

Sermon

“Do you know what message I am going to preach to you today?”  This is what the great Islamic Mullah said as he looked out on the people gathered for Friday prayers.  Nasruddin, the Mullah, appears in many Sufi stories as a wise trickster and sort of a goofball.  He asked the crowd this question, and they shook their heads—no.  He said: “Well, why would I waste my time speaking to people who don’t know my message? Go home!”  They did, but they invited the great Nasrudin to come back the following Friday.

“Do you know the message I am going to tell you today?” he asked.  Yes, yes!  We do!  they smiled.  “Go home!” he shouted. “Why would I take the time to repeat what you already know?”

This troubled the congregation.  They really wanted to hear from this wise Mullah!  So they made a plan.  The next jumah, the Friday prayers, they had him back.  He asked, “Do you know what I am going to say to you?”  And half of them shook their heads no, and the other half nodded and said yes!              “Finally,” Nasrudin said.  “Now, those of you who know what I am going to say, turn to those who don’t know what I am going to say, and tell them.”  And he left.

This is a story about one kind of expectation—an assumption of the way things are.  It’s when you are counting on something—and in this story, you don’t get it.  Something else happens from what you expect.

On Monday I was at a Catholic retreat center in with a group of UU clergy colleagues.  In the dining hall we found these little plastic containers of coffee creamer.  On the cover it reads:  “Non-Dairy Creamer.”  Under that it says, “Contains Milk.”

This wording led to speculation on our part.  Can you get milk without a dairy?  We laughed it off, and someone found a carton of 2% milk and a box of soymilk.  We were amused by this experience of having our expectations upended.  We didn’t get what we were counting on.

That’s one kind of expectation.  The other kind of expectation is the experience of waiting.  The Reverend Dr. Christina Hutchins is a professor at Pacific School of Religion.  A year ago she gave a sermon on Advent, the season of waiting for Christmas.  She said that the experience of waiting is a complete and authentic spiritual experience on its own.  It is not merely the delay of an event, not the denied gratification of an authentic experience. Expectation is a complete experience on its own.  Like all spiritual experiences, it’s worth paying attention to it.  This is the spirituality of expectation—finding wisdom in the waiting, seeking to gain from the journey along the way.

Right now we are waiting for Solstice and Christmas and New Year’s Eve and Kwanzaa and so on.   Growing up in a mainstream Protestant household, Christmas was what I waited for.  But in truth, I just wanted to get it over with!  This Thursday morning I will be one of the speakers at the UUSS Alliance’s holiday lunch program.   Alliance chairperson Vivian Counts invited four of us to tell of a holiday memory from our lives.  I’m glad there are three others talking, because I can’t think of any inspiring Christmas memory from the years before I was a minister.

As a child I dreaded the loneliness I felt when school was out for those two weeks.  Television was the distracting technology of those days, and the TV often was on, but it did not satisfy.  I craved the many shiny packages under the tree, but after tearing into them on Christmas Day, the emptiness inside me felt even sharper.  The alcohol abuse and animosity among my relatives made me feel as if I was walking on eggshells.  For me, Christmas was to be gotten through.  My family  went to church many Sunday mornings, but somehow it never occurred to the family to go to church on Christmas Eve, nor to attend  any community concerts or special programs in our town.  Had we done such activities together, it might have given us a little spiritual nourishment.   Perhaps by this Thursday’s Alliance meeting I’ll remember some suitable holiday memories to tell.  If not, I could ask the gathering, “Do you know what I am going to say to you today?”  Then they can tell one another.

Among the human family, with the broad variety of conditions and situations in which we find ourselves, we human beings have all sorts of waiting to do.  We have many ways to experience waiting, ways to think about our waiting, and make use of the time.

People in prison are people who are waiting—waiting for their sentence to end, waiting for a friendly visit or a letter, waiting for the next meal.  For some, the wait is a long time.  Yet in that time of waiting, some prisoners are lucky to find a way to grow.   Some have access in prison to theater arts and poetry, or to study for a GED or a college degree or to learn, simply, to read and write.  It’s my impression that prisons are some of the places where people are most likely to begin an intensive spiritual search or to deepen one.  Great spiritual classics have been written in jail– by Dr. Martin Luther King and the Apostle Paul for example.

I’ve read and heard many ex-inmates testifying that a spiritual practice is what saved them.  In prison many people experience conversion to Islam, or accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, join a 12-Step group, or begin Buddhist meditation.  The online congregation known as the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship supports a prison ministry by mail, and some UU congregations have their own ministries to nearby prisons.  In a book about Buddhism behind bars, one convicted felon writes that mindfulness meditation has been a tool for him in prison, and a blessing.  His waiting for the end of his sentence is the occasion of his practice in mindful awareness.  Sometimes, he says, they throw him in solitary confinement, a common management practice in prisons today.  Solitary sounds frightening and lonely to me.  Yet this man says that he tries to think of it as an opportunity for a deeper practice of mindfulness.  This blows my mind!  Those in confinement have no choice—only the choice between awareness of the moments at hand and suffering in agony about the long wait for confinement’s end.

Nelson Mandela spent 26 years in prison under the white Apartheid government of South Africa.  What a long, uncertain wait!  His passing last week at age 95 makes me want to learn about that experience, as well as other details of his life in the freedom struggle in South Africa.  I want to know what sustained him.    He could never be sure if he would live his entire life in prison, be released, or be executed.  Did Mandela know his people had not forgotten him?  Did he know that activists around the world were demanding his release?  He practiced the spirituality of waiting.

A friend has told me a story about Mandela’s time in confinement.  After some years, he was transferred to the Robben Island prison, infamous for its harshness.  He found himself doing hard labor, with other political prisoners. Their task:  breaking rocks in a quarry, pointless.  Robben Island also held other inmates, those convicted of murder, armed robbery, sexual assault.   Many were members of criminal gangs with reputations for terrorizing other inmates.  They tried to push the political prisoners around, take their food, or disrupt any political conversations.  By this harassment, they were trying to provoke the activists to reacting.

Members of these gangs labored in the quarry, but in separate groups from the political activists.  One day they began singing a song, taking a popular tune and changing the words to mock the political prisoners.  They were again trying to provoke them into a reaction.  And they got one.

The political prisoners decided to fight back–by singing.  In response they chose a rousing, familiar song.  Typically it was not a political song, but in this context, they charged it with political accusations.  The two groups competed by singing, back and forth.  For several days, these opponents confronted one another–in song.  Nelson Mandela later claimed that his men had much better voices, with wonderful harmony.  He and his group would often get lost in their music-making.  They would forget all about the gang members, who had taunted and threatened them.  Soon the gang members became quiet.  They only listened, as the political prisoners made music.  The singing brought peace.

When the prison guards figured out what was happening, they demanded that the music cease.  They didn’t even allow whistling.   In the stillness that followed, it was clear to Mandela that fears had melted away.  By pushing back, creatively, the political prisoners converted hostile opponents into people with a shared plight, a shared condition of confinement and waiting.  By choosing creative action, Mandela’s colleagues sang away their passive despair and their fear.  They brought meaning into their time of waiting by choosing to be creative.

When I think about the waiting of people in such painful situations, it’s embarrassing to say I want to get the month of December over with!  It puts into clear perspective my feelings of dread of the loss of daylight, my irritation with holiday commercialism, my frustration with traffic, like the slow traffic on this Marathon Sunday here in our neighborhood.  I say to myself:  So what!  How lucky I am only to have to wait for traffic to move!          The Buddhist priest Thich Nhat Hanh writes that waiting in traffic at a red stop light is a chance to practice being mindful.  Red light, notice the moment.  Notice our experience of sitting in the car or waiting at the cross walk.   Red light, notice the moment.  Blessed be the red light, great companion of our waiting!

What are you waiting for?  Most of us are waiting for something… a job, a pension or Social Security, a baby to be born or an adoption agency to call with good news.  We wait for an upcoming trip, happiness, our next birthday, this semester’s grade report.  We wait for a diagnosis or lab results from a clinic, for moving day, for Christmas Eve.  Most of us are waiting for something, most of the time.   Meanwhile, we have days and moments in which to live and move and have our being, we have a journey called what’s going on right now.

Personally I am waiting for January 26, the day of the congregational vote here at UUSS, on my candidacy to be the called senior minister.  I’m now in month number six of my seven-month job interview with you.  It’s a long wait.  Part of me would like it to be over.  But you and I have seven months of life to live and ministry to do before then, while we wait.

So I am doing my best to enjoy the journey, enjoy the moments of ministry that pass before that big day.  After all, if I were walking on a sidewalk under a tall building and moving men were maneuvering a grand piano out of a window and it slipped out of their control, and it fell on me, my waiting would end right then.  This example, this wise warning, is handed down to us in the sacred scripture of the Warner Brothers cartoons, with which I grew up.

Given the uncertainty of anything we are waiting for, why not choose to pay attention?  Give some attention to the complete, authentic experience of waiting?  Explore the journey of our experience of each day.

Sooner or later, what we are waiting for does not arrive, or we do not arrive at that point.  The piano falls.  The traffic light turns red and does not change back to green.  In matters of life both great and small, we will end… before we reach the end.  To do authentic waiting is a challenge–and a paradox.  It means we need to invite patience, be gentle, and practice curiosity.  Yet given that we cannot count on reaching every goal, every end, it seems we should not wait on some things.

We should not wait to live with courage.   Should not wait to speak the truth and speak with kindness.  Not wait to live as our conscience and heart are asking us to live.  We should not wait to be grateful.  Not wait to be generous.  Not wait to take care of our health and our spirits.

We can stretch ourselves, open our hearts, and practice a bit more courage as we wait.  By the way we live in the time of waiting, we can prepare ourselves better for whatever we might be waiting for.

We are waiting for Solstice, when the night is longest, and the days begin to have more light once again.  Meanwhile we have a new day to welcome, every day.   We have sundown by 5 PM and sunrise by 7 AM, and a day full of whatever it brings, with the touch and flavor of waiting as an authentic part of the experience.

The experience of expectation is an authentic and complete spiritual experience by itself.  Waiting for the green light, for the holiday, for the solstice night, is not the delay of the prize or its absence; it holds a prize all its own.  With awareness, we can move toward wholeness in the moment.  On every day of our journey, we can pause to notice what is already here, and give thanks.  And give thanks.  So may it be.



Time of Darkness and Light– UUSS Sermon from Sunday, December 15, 2013

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

Music:  Hymns:  #226 “People, Look East,” #118 “This Little Light of mine,” #1008 “When Our Heart Is in a Holy Place.”  Solo:  “The Dark” by Mary Grigolia, sung a capella by Rev. Lucy.

Litany of Darkness and Light    (see at end)

Sermon

I sat looking out the kitchen window well before 7 in the morning, just last week.  I felt the chilly air seeping in, and a mug of warm tea in my cold hands.  I was ready to watch the morning light emerge, was waiting for the sunlight to change the look of everything.  But I felt sadness.  The tea had caffeine—how long would it take to change my mood, if it could?  This mood was not of deep grief, and not a heavy burden of depression on my shoulders, yet it was a decidedly not-fun feeling of sadness.   I said my morning prayer anyway.

I gave thanks for the gift of life and the new day, for a night’s rest in a warm, safe place.  I lifted up the names of parishioners who need good wishes or prayers, brought their faces to mind, plus those of colleagues, friends, and relatives.  I stated my intentions for living the day with gratitude, generosity, curiosity and kindness.  The light was now making the street visible, and showing the colors of the cars parked on it.

Then it occurred to me:  that pre-dawn darkness was just the right place for my sadness.  The shadows could receive it.  The shadows could let the sadness move, in its own gentle way.  Had it been 7 AM in June or July, the sun would have claimed the whole scene by now.  It would be urging me into the many tasks of the day:  Get going, look alive!  But the morning darkness of December seems to say, “Take it easy and slowly–I am taking it easy and slowly, after all.  Let it be.  Feel what you feel in this moment.  You will notice how it changes.”

Soon it was bright and clear, and my day was on its way.  And it went fast.  The night came in the middle of the day—5 o’clock.  Wait!  I’m not finished with my day yet!

For years I have resisted and resented the early evening.  I’ve dreaded the shrinking hours of daylight, starting in early November, when we set our clocks back an hour.

But as this December Solstice approaches, I try to appreciate what can happen in the dark.  I would like to mention a few of the gifts of the time of darkness, but first I want to say:  it’s not a gift for everyone, no matter what a preacher or a poet might say.

Like many people, a friend of mine has a clinical, biological reaction in the winter darkness, called Seasonal Affective Disorder.  It does not help that she lives at a latitude even farther north than we do, and it’s cold there, for a long time.  You know what they would call the chilly weather we’ve had this past week?  Springtime (without the mud).

She sits under a special kind of lamp every day, to give her body and spirit some extra rays of light.  In retirement she has the time to travel, so she spends a few weeks in the winter visiting friends in warm, sunny places.  When she can save up enough money and find a cheap deal, she takes a trip to a warm country.  Not speaking Vietnamese, she made her way around villages in Vietnam by pointing and smiling.  In the sunshine of Egypt a few years ago, she heard people speak with hope right after the overthrow of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.  She enjoyed the January summer of Argentina, taking in the spray of Iguazu falls, the marvel of a glacier, and some penguins in their stiff cuteness.  Rather than cursing the dark and cold, she follows the sun.  Of course, this is not an option for most people, and she gives thanks for the privilege to do so.

It’s important to note that seasons of darkness and cold can be very hard on the spirit, hard on the emotional health of many people around us.  It may not only bring up grief or painful memories of past experiences, it may bring depression that weighs on our minds and even on our physical bodies.  This can happen to people young or old, in any occupation or stage of life.  When other ways of dealing with the shadow side of this dark time don’t seem to help us, it may be worth seeing if anti-depressant medicines, psychotherapy, or a 12-Step recovery group can make a difference for us.  Whether as individuals or as families, we can look for professional resources and community support as we pursue emotional healing, personal growth, and the ability to accept the gift of life with joy.

Personal growth can happen in the dark times and places.  Seeds will sprout in the cool dark of the earth, and begin their journey toward the light.  As a tree stretches toward the sun, it also grows downward, inward, into the dark earth.  We can be like the trees.  As Henry David Thoreau said, “In winter we lead a more inward life.”

Another friend of mine lives not so far north, so the weather’s not as cold and the nights not as long.  Yet the winter darkness does mean a change of her pattern of living, toward a more inward life.   She spends more time under the covers, reading a book propped on the pillow next to her.   In the living room she brings out candles and a string of holiday lights.  They remind her of our inner light, of an eternal spark.  Believing that winter is the best time for exercise, she puts on layers and goes out for a brisk walk.  The leaves crunch underfoot, the air chills the skin of the face, the nose runs.

In winter, she says, we need exercise to stimulate our endorphins.  Of course, we can be tempted to medicate our mood by drinking more alcohol and eating more, especially sweets and other carbohydrates.  But the boost we might feel by consuming alcohol and sweets can have a down side.  It can make us feel worse—edgy–after the boost wears off.   This December I am taking some of her advice.  Of course, I may never stop my holiday consumption of cookies, cake, fudge and anything else any of you might wish to make for me.  But I’m eating more almonds and pecans and not forgetting my veggies.  And I am having less alcohol, and drinking less often.   I’m not crazy about green tea, but I’ve been drinking so much of it lately that soon I may turn the color of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

One Unitarian Universalist family I know has created their own Solstice tradition.  With candles and cloths they make an altar of their table.  They bake a light brown, round ginger cake—dense and only an inch thick.  They serve it on a large round plate with a rim glazed with dark blue like the sky, and specked with stars.  They pass the cake around, each one cutting a piece for the next person, who indicates by nods and silent gestures how large of a piece to cut.

As the cake is served, what is revealed underneath it in the center of the plate is a round red sun.  The sun returns!  For Solstice dinner, they eat only foods with round shapes, evoking the sun.  They read prayers to the divine light and sing chants to the source of returning warmth.  The parents hide little suns around the house and the kids go searching for them.  By finding a likeness of sun, they are bringing the sun back, helping it return.  This family does not rely on the dominant culture to tell them what they need to do or to buy for making spirits bright—they create their own traditions.  Any of us can be creative.  We can join with nature and with other people to create our own light, and share the light, now in the dark of winter.

For many people, winter is a time for making soup and other warm foods, and eating more of the fresh foods that our season brings out.  In California we have so many winter crops.  Those in cold climates now can benefit from quick transport of fresh foods, but in the old days they kept food in the root cellar, and dried meat and beans from the summer crop.

Back home in Indiana, my mother’s fridge held many frozen foods for our winter meals, and this was fine.  But around the corner from our house, my uncle and aunt had shelves of clear glass jars with green beans, tomatoes, corn and other produce they had canned in the summer.   My uncle Roger had been a cook on a ship in the Navy during the Second World War.  As a boy I helped him in the kitchen, including his major undertaking of putting up all that food, with Mason jars boiling in big pots of water and other steps for cleanliness and safety.  That was a summer activity, but the memory of it warms me in the winter.

Now I can see that we were storing sunshine in shiny glass jars.

The poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “In a dark time the eye begins to see.”

The darkness can help us to see the truth… that we are not in control of everything.  We can be so busy in our lives, have so many expectations.  So many technologies at our fingertips and conveniences in our daily experience can lull us into thinking that there is an online menu tab for peace of mind or an iPad application for wisdom, courage, and grace.

The world does not revolve around any of us, including me; nor does earth rotate at my command.   Its creation is a miracle and a blessing. The operation of the heavens is a wonder.  And it all goes on without my permission or involvement. It will go on without me.  The darkness comes and goes—my cursing it or my blessing it affects only the condition of my own spirit.  The season’s advice to me:  you need not be in control, and in fact you are not in control.  Let the darkness hold the future.  Let go!

We can be intentional about living in the darker season. This is why candles appeal to us:  the darker it gets around them, the more they show their beauty.   Looking at a candle flame, or a string of lights on the tree or around the window, we can think about the meaning of light, and the bringers of light—like our nearby star, the human mind and heart, the source of love and light eternal, the creative spark, the divine fire of courage and compassion.

Solstice rituals use fire and food and song—to bless the darkness with beauty, while praising the cycles of the seasons of the earth.   People hang lights at Christmas to praise the source of life, celebrate the story of the star of Bethlehem, and remember that sun and warmth will return.

On Christmas Eve at UUSS, our sanctuary fills with members and their friends, and with guests we see only once a year.  In the weeks leading up to it, folks ask me the time:  seven o’clock, same as always.  They ask me if we will light candles and sing “Silent Night,” at the end.  Of course!  We will make a circle around the walls of the sanctuary, and exchange the light with one another, and then enjoy the darkness, filled with song and silence, and with faces illuminated by the flames.

Folks never ask:  will we sing the carols and hear a homily, will we have some instrumental music, prayer and silence and an offering?  All those things are like the setup to the “Silent Night” candle light finale!  Yet without those elements, the finale would be weak.

Without the darkness, our candles would be weak.  Likewise, without the embrace of the darkness, we might not have the reminder to plan ahead, create meaning in the season, and reach out for fellowship and support.  The darkness holds an invitation to let go of all that we cannot control, and accept with serenity all that we can’t change.

At my kitchen window, in my early morning watch for the light, the dark of winter seems to say:  “Take it easy, and go slowly–I am taking it easy, and going slowly, after all.  Let it be.  Feel what you feel in this moment.  You will notice how it changes.”

The dark of winter is a time to consider the sources of light we can count on, and give thanks for them.  It’s the season for tasting the warmth of nourishing food, made by human hands from the gifts of the earth for our sustenance and our joy. It’s a season for creativity, planning ahead, self-care and care for others.  It’s a time for digging deep and for reaching out toward others with compassion, openness, and kindness.

It’s a time for patience and letting go of control, for releasing the past and opening to the mystery of the future.  May we all be so blessed.

In the days to come, may you welcome the gifts of light and warmth you can bring into the darkness.  May the days and nights ahead bless us with light, learning, warmth, patience and peace.               Blessed be.


 

Litany of Darkness and Light

 

Part A (Before silent meditation/prayer)

 

Voice 1:  We wait in the darkness expectantly, longingly, anxiously, thoughtfully.

Voice 2:  In the darkness of the womb, we have all been nurtured and protected.

All Voices:  May we feel comfort in the darkness.

 

It is only in the darkness that we can see the splendor of the universe– blankets of stars, the solitary glowing of distant planets.

In the darkness of the night sky we feel beyond time – in the presence of the past, and with the promise of the future.

May we feel hope in the darkness.

 

In the solitude of the darkness we may remember those who need our love and support in special ways–

 the sick, the unemployed, the bereaved, the persecuted, the homeless, those who are demoralized or discouraged, those whose fear has turned to cynicism, those whose vulnerability has become bitterness.

Sometimes in the darkness we remember those who are near to our hearts – colleagues, partners, parents, children, neighbors, friends, congregation members.   We pray for their safety and happiness.  We offer our support.

May we know healing in the darkness.


 

 

Part B (After musical interlude following sermon)

 

In the quiet darkness of the night, we may hear that still, small voice within.

In the blessed darkness we may be transformed, changed by what we face in the dark.

May we feel the challenge of the darkness.

 

In the darkness of sleep, we are soothed and restored, healed and renewed.

In the darkness of sleep dreams rise up, calling us to possibilities, calling us to know our connection to the world.

May we feel joy in the darkness.               

Sometimes in the solitude of darkness our fears and concerns, our hopes and our visions rise to the surface. We come face to face with ourselves.   We find the road that lies ahead of us.

Sometimes in the darkness we wonder about the important things, the deep things, and inexpressible things.  We watch for glimmers of hope and glimpses of grace.

May we feel renewed in the darkness.  May we be guided by the light of our hearts.  Reflecting the divine love that shines at the heart of life,  let us reach out to this troubled world with compassion.

New Century Hymnal, adapted