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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.

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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



Not What She Was Expecting! (Advent Sermon 12/19/2010)

Not What She Was Expecting!

Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 19, 2010

Hymns:  “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”; “Deck the Hall”; “Prayer to Holy Wisdom” [tune:  Once in Royal David’s City]; special music: “Coventry Carol”; “Away in a Manger.”

Who’s Been Naughty and Nice: An Exchange of Appreciation

Last Saturday I finished my meeting in Boston and checked my flight status to come home.  Flight cancelled!  Rerouted for Sunday morning, and I would get to Sacramento after church.  Why had I booked a flight that went through Minneapolis!?!  The best that airline could get me for Saturday was a flight into San Francisco, about 100 miles away from my car, Sacramento’s airport parking lot.

So I bought a one-way ticket on Southwest airlines, which gave me a long layover in Denver.  Walking from gate to gate, I saw Santa Claus.  “Come get your picture taken with Santa,” I heard a marketing person call out…to me!  I steered clear of the scene and watched, thinking it was for kids.  “You’re next,” they said.  I stood next to Santa’s big chair, shook his white-gloved hand and grinned for the camera.  The payoff included a $20 airline discount, and an emailed copy of the picture.  But first they walked me through some new photo manipulation software and asked me to take a survey about it.  They showed me how you can take the smile from one picture of yourself and put it on another one if your smile and the rest of you are not all captured at once in a way that meets your expectations.  The survey asked:  “How likely are you to use this Microsoft version of [whatever]?”  I said, “Not likely.”  Not likely even to remember its name. Sorry to disappoint them.

It was a slow night for Santa, so before I left, I gave Santa Claus a minister’s report.  You know: the naughty and nice list.  I started with nice people in the church, so Santa would think I am nice.  I named the greeters and ushers, the musicians, the Book Store volunteers, the cooks, the babies in the nursery, the Sunday School teachers.  Who else do you think I included?  Name some out loud.  [Elicit names of people for a time.]  Yes, I mentioned all those and more.  Raise your hand if you did something good this past year, just one nice thing.  Okay, on the count of three, call our your names all at the same time.  1-2-3 Go!  Yes, I told Santa all your names.  I had so many people to praise from this church.  Now he was ready to hear the NAUGHTY list!  Unfortunately, my flight was announced, and I had to leave.  And that was that.

Sermon:  Not What She Was Expecting!

Here’s a story about the legendary Muslim preacher, teacher and trickster Nasreddin, a Sufi who lived in the Middle Ages. He is claimed by the peoples of three countries: Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.  One day Mullah Nasreddin was invited to deliver a sermon. When he got into the pulpit, he asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” The audience replied “No.”  He announced, “I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about!” He left.

The people felt embarrassed and called him back again the next day. This time, when he asked “Do you know what I am going to say?”, [GUESS WHAT the people said?] They replied “Yes.”  So Nasreddin said, “Well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time!”  He left.

Now folks were really perplexed. They decided to try one more time and invited the Mullah to speak the following week. Once again he asked: “Do you know what I am going to say?” Now, however, the people were prepared.  Half of them answered “Yes” while the other half replied “No.” So Nasreddin said “Let the half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the half who don’t,” and he left.

This is a story about expectations.  Nasreddin wanted to know what they expected of him.  AND he didn’t want to fulfill their expectations.

Almost nobody has been a stranger to having our expectations disappointed.  Most have known frustration, rejection, failure, lack of follow-through, and the heartbreak of loss.  With the passage of time, we may learn that we had incorrect assumptions or that there was a failure of communication about what we expected of others or what others expected of us.  And with time, we get some healing.  In big ways and small, we have experienced the shock of unmet expectations.

This month, these days, are times of waiting and expectation.  People who study the weather, and those who celebrate earth-based spiritual traditions, mark this Tuesday as the Winter Solstice.  I’ve been waiting…for the days to start getting longer!  It will take some time to have enough extra daylight to notice it, but I get a new burst of hope at the Solstice.   In the calendar of the Christian tradition, today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, a season of waiting, reflection, hope and expectation.  The waiting-time of Advent ends on Christmas, and Advent songs look forward to that:  “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “People look east; Love the guest is on the way.”

The Virgin Mary’s waiting time ended on Christmas too.  She was waiting and expectant.  Literally, she was expecting.  The end of her waiting time—that is, the birth of Jesus— is what gave Christmas to the world in the first place.

Imagine her situation:  She is of the lowest possible rank and condition in ancient Palestine:  a teenage girl from a poor family at a time when children, females and poor people have no rights.  She is a Jew living under the military occupation of the Roman Empire.  Fortunately, she is engaged to a man who is a carpenter—good skills to have.  Before the marriage, though, she learns that she is pregnant.  The Angel Gabriel gives her the news, and explains that the baby will be the child not of Joseph, but of Almighty God.  Furthermore, she learns that he will be a teacher, a prophet, a leader for his people and for the world.

Whatever a poor Jewish girl living under military rule could think her life might look like, surely this fate is not what she was expecting.  Nor is her fiance expecting this news.  Given the strict culture there, Joseph could shame her in public for being pregnant, but he plans only to send her away quietly, because he’s a nice guy.

Angel Gabriel comes to the rescue:  “Don’t worry, Joseph, this baby will be the child of the Holy Spirit.  If you parent him, care for him, raise him, you will be doing a great service to your people and the whole wide world.”

Mary says yes, and Joseph says yes, to an unexpected role, yes to a future whose challenges are not yet clear.  When the baby comes due, they are out of town and on the road:  again, not what they expected.  The only place they can find to stay is a stable in Bethlehem, so Mary gives birth with the help of a few local women and some cows, goats, donkeys and other livestock.  I’m not sure what help the animals provide, but they are what she’s got.  Surely not what she expected.

Unfortunately, word gets out that Jesus is a special child, a Jewish messiah, a king-to-be. The Romans’ local ruler, Herod, is not happy about the competition, so he sends soldiers out to take the lives of all young male children.  Angel Gabriel does not protect these innocents, but he does help Joseph, Mary and the baby flee to Egypt.  As ordinary peasants in ancient Palestine, this adventure is not what they expected.

Other than all this drama, the Bible gives no details about the day-to-day struggles and stress that Mary might go through while caring for a baby–or the stress of any parent of any new child.

Two thousand years after Mary, a different woman found herself in the unexpected position of expecting.  In a book she entitled Operating Instructions, California author Anne Lamott writes about her experience as the recovering-alcoholic single mother of an infant.  It’s a funny book, and those who have cared for infants surely would nod their heads at wacky depictions of the new parent’s range of emotions. Lamott expresses her sense of inadequacy, of being overwhelmed and exhausted.  The colicky baby doesn’t sleep, but cries for three and four hours at a time.  His feedings, gas pains, poop, and pee rule her days and nights.  To one like me who’s not had a child, Lamott’s record of the baby’s first year is downright frightening!

Yet Anne Lamott is blessed by the help, care and attention of a circle of loyal friends, relatives, and the people from her church.  They’re all devoted to the child and to her.  In the ancient story of Mary, lots of people gather around.  Shepherds come to look and worship, leaving their own flocks untended.  Sorcerers, kings, astrologers—the ones known as the wise men—come from far away, guided by a star, and on bended knee they display the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  In the Bible, these gifts are literary symbols of the future life of this child, necessary to the story.  But for a new parent of a new baby, they are of no help at all.  No diapers, not a bag or two of groceries, not a covered dish for supper.  No crib or stroller or a mobile to hang above the baby bed, and no baby bed either.  Some cash would be nice too.

Lamott had not expected to get pregnant, but when she found out that she was going to be a single parent, she said “Yes,” not knowing what to expect.  Amid all the struggles, she was moved by the help from so many people and surprised by how much devotion she could feel toward another human being.  She writes about being filled with love, joy and faith just from looking at the baby as he sleept.  It was, she writes, “the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.  He was like moonlight.”

Lamott wrote the book to make sense of her experiences of the baby’s first year. She’s been a much-loved writer of novels and books about spirituality and her quirky and liberal form of Christian faith.  Last week she was inducted into our state’s Hall of Fame at the California Museum.  As a recovering alcoholic, her successful and blessed life is a world away from anything she could have expected 20 or 30 years ago.  If she wants to feel good about how things have turned out, however, she should not compare herself to the Virgin Mary, who’s a saint, a real saint.  For hundreds of years, icons and statues have held Mary in high esteem.  She’s a woman to worship, the female face of God.  She’s a mother-figure to ask for help, whatever gender, age, or stage of life a person is in.  She is known ‘round the world as the face of compassion for her baby, and for her son as a grown-up radical rabbi, and for the sufferings of the whole human family.  Not a role that she expected.

The stories of these two women tell me this:  We cannot be sure how our lives will evolve and change, cannot know what events, upsets, blessings or surprises lie in our future, or even in the next day.  We don’t know how we would rise to meet those challenges and experiences until they happen.  We can’t know how life will change, or what will emerge from our heart when it does.  Yet we can be sure that there is more beneath our surface than we are able to name and see right now.  There is more courage, wisdom and peace in us than we imagine.  That, for me, is a source of hope.

But practical questions remain for us in moments of pain over the unmet expectations in our lives.  In the face of failure or loss, how do we move forward?  When we fall flat on our backsides after the rug is yanked from under us, how do we begin?  Or, how can we trust the future when we’re holding on so hard to our expectations that our breathing is tight and shallow?  When our sense of possibility is weighted down, when we have no good idea coming to mind, how do we respond?

Two things that help me…  are sitting still and going for a walk.  Of course, these are opposite activities, but they both help me.

In sitting still, I return to the breath, and notice the presence of my body and how it feels.  This helps me begin to find the spirit that sustains me, and feel the ground that holds me up.  I can let myself experience my feelings of disappointment, but I need not run from them.  I breathe, maybe I cry, maybe pray.

Each of us can show kindness to our own feelings, just as we can show kindness toward another’s feelings without taking them on as an all-day burden.  Of course, sitting still with uncertainty, pain or anxiety can be hard, but we can start small, with brief times and then go longer.  It makes a difference.

Going for a walk helps me too.  It gives me time to reflect, to think through the nature of my expectations and the reason for my pain.  It gives me space to think of new possibilities.  As the seasons come and go, when walking regularly I notice that the structure of a neighborhood or the look of a local park stays the same over the year.  Yet there are subtle changes every month, every week, every day.  The scenes around me show that life changes, but the basic structure of life continues.  So it is with us:  our life changes, but our basic human identity continues.  These are my examples, of course, not my prescriptions.

Some folks go hiking as a solitary activity: I don’t go alone; I worry I’ll get lost.  Some go biking or swimming.  After such exertion they come away with a new outlook on the day, a fresh look at life.  Some seek out the help of a counselor, mentor, friend, spiritual director, or life coach.  Some find reassurance in books of wisdom or advice, some in art, music, and various crafts.

One of my colleagues in a recent sermon recommended this:  Watch your own life as if were a movie or a play.   Step up to the balcony and watch it from a distance.  Watch it unfold like a story.  Consider a wider, deeper, longer perspective on life.

In the story I told of Nasreddin, the Sufi preacher flouted the expectations of his congregation:   “The half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the half who don’t!” Is this just wacky, or is there wisdom in it?  Perhaps Nasreddin wants them to turn to one another, and speak together.  Maybe he wants them to learn how to practice dialogue, and value it.  He wants them to listen to one another, and bear witness to one another.  Maybe he’s had enough of everybody sitting at his feet, waiting on his every word, and he wants them to look inside for the wisdom they can call upon.  He wants them to look to one another for the wisdom that they can share as a community.

The reason I think we are all here in this place, at worship services and other programs here, is that we seek help and support from a community.  We bear witness to our lives here, and others are witnesses to our lives, and the changes in life.

We make ourselves available for fellowship and friendship with others.

Of course, among our disappointments, among the unmet expectations of life are unwelcome afflictions:  pain and sickness, injuries, and loss of the mental or physical abilities we used to rely on every day.  In one another’s company we bear witness to these changes as well.  As expectations fall by the wayside, and new chapters open in our lives, we bear witness to the spirit that endures in each one of us.

Whether we get an unexpected sorrow, a pleasant surprise, or an intriguing hint of something newly emerging in our lives, we can be there for one another.  People here pretty much look like the same kind of individuals from week to week–and we are the same.  Yet we are changing too.

Those who come to know us will notice our changes and our growth. They can help us discern the newness emerging from our lives, from our spirits.  If we pay attention, we can watch ourselves, and one another, as we grow in spirit.

As new chapters open in our lives, we watch and wait, and we bear witness to the spirit that endures in each one of us.

As we watch and wait,  may the spirit grow in us and among us.  So may it be.  Blessed be.  Amen.



Winter Solstice Sunday sermon–2009

Winter’s Wisdom

December 20, 2009

Family Minister,  UU Society of Sacramento

Hymns:

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Deck the Halls,”“All Beautiful the March of Days.”

WORDS ON WINTER 1

I grew up in the Midwest, and lived in Indiana and Illinois until my mid-30s.  We had cold winters there, but you could not count on a white Christmas—it didn’t snow that often or stay that cold.  Twelve years ago I moved west, to the San Jose area.  That was where I learned that winter can happen without snow.  One sunny afternoon in San Francisco I sat at an outdoor café, without a coat—it was too warm.  I kept saying to myself:  “It’s December 31st!  I can’t believe it!”  Winter in the Bay Area, as well as in Sacramento, has lots of fog early in the morning, clear sunny days, chilly nights, and rain.

It’s pleasant here, and by now I’m used to our California climate.  Yet Midwestern weather patterns are imprinted on my soul. This makes it hard for me to keep track of dates and seasons.  Two weeks ago I strolled in my neighborhood where a strong wind had showered the streets with brown leaves, and kept enough yellow and red leaves on the branches of the big trees to play with the bright warm sunshine.  The wind was strong and a bit chilly, so I walked on the sunny side of the street.  I said to myself, “What a perfect October day.” Then I remembered that it was December and there were 20 shopping days till Christmas.

Images of winter time in poetry, songs and essays are dominated by ice and snow.  Even though much of this country’s population lives in regions where snow seldom falls, memories are etched in frosty words and pictures.

The music and readings in our Unitarian Universalist hymnals reflect the New England origins of our faith tradition when it comes to climate and weather:  Snow, snow, snow.  Not many words to honor the rejuvenating rain of the western winters.  No poetry to evoke the longings we feel in Sacramento during July and August.  I mean longings like “Get Me Out of Here!”  No lines about our summer night’s cool release:  our beloved Delta breeze.
In the Bay Area I came to love how the hills turn green in the winter, soaking up the rains after the summer heat has taken the moisture and color from the grasses.  The poet Karl Shapiro wrote a poem of his appreciation of our Central Valley winters.  Formerly a professor at the University of California, Davis, Shapiro called his poem California Winter[i], simply enough.

Here’s the last few stanzas:

And skiers from the snow line driving home

Descend through almond orchards, olive farms.

Fig tree and palm tree — everything that warms

The imagination of the wintertime.

If the walls were older one would think of Rome:

If the land were stonier one would think of Spain.

But this land grows the oldest living things,

Trees that were young when Pharoahs ruled the world,

Trees whose new leaves are only just unfurled.

Beautiful they are not; they oppress the heart

With gigantism and with immortal wings;

And yet one feels the sumptuousness of this dirt.

It is raining in California, a straight rain

Cleaning the heavy oranges on the bough,

Filling the gardens till the gardens flow,

Shining the olives, tiling the gleaming tile,

Waxing the dark camellia leaves more green,

Flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile.

In appreciation of our own winter wonderland, and the rains that renew the land, let’s make it rain today.  As a minister I do not claim the power of prayer to bring on rain, or knowledge of any incantations, but our other minister does.  Doug, please make it happen.  [Congregation making sounds of a rainstorm.]

WORDS ON WINTER 2

I have a confession.  I am a Christmas-season crank.  Why else would I be wearing a tie with Dr. Seuss’s “Grinch Who Stole Christmas” on it?  And why else would a best friend have given it to me years ago if she didn’t know this about me!

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” the song goes, but not for me.  Every December, as nights lengthen and obligations pile up, I have bouts of feeling overwhelmed, annoyed, sad, and downright unspiritual.  The reasons may include the shortness of daylight, unhappy memories of holiday seasons from my youth, and the race to get so many things done before the December 25th deadline.   Most years I don’t feel ready for Christmas …till February.

December makes me feel inadequate as a minister.  Our UU tradition validates many kinds of religious observances as well as civic and secular ones.  However, to be as inclusive as possible in making time for those observances, we’d have to make time for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany for starters–but also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Human Rights Day, World AIDS Day, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Day, Pearl Harbor Day, New Year’s Day, the Islamic New Year and the Hindu observance of Diwali, in years when it falls in December.  Maybe you’ve thought of a seasonal observance that I’ve overlooked.

Last Monday I was leading an adult enrichment class, and we included the lighting of a Menorah, to acknowledge Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.  One member asked why we had put a Christmas tree in the sanctuary so early in December, but we didn’t have a Menorah in here last Sunday, right in the middle of the eight days of Hanukkah.  Trying to be non-defensive, I explained that our tree trimming party had been held early this year because I was organizing it, and was going to be out of town last Saturday.  And the Menorah?  This year, it slipped by me.  Last year, it didn’t.  Fortunately tonight we have an enthusiastic team of lay leaders organizing the Winter Solstice ritual and potluck dinner, so I’m confident it will happen.  All I have to do is remember to show up!

The month of December is an accumulation of celebrations, a month when holidays are added but not replaced.   But there were simpler times!  After the Puritan revolt in England in 1645, Christmas was cancelled.  When Massachusetts was a Puritan colony, Christmas was against the law from 1659 to 1681  And “anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings.”[ii] And I thought that I was cranky!

In years past—long past—winter was a time to start slowing down, at least in cold northern climates.  The growing darkness and harsh weather would force people to ease their pace, huddle together, stay close to home, and gather round the fireplace, the hearth. A century ago in many parts of the country, the wood-burning fireplace was a household’s center of life, drawing folks together for warmth.  Nowadays the wood-burning fireplace is not usually a source of heat or a place for cooking in a house, but an architectural decoration.  It’s a source of nostalgia for an era that many of us didn’t experience.  Also in earlier times, winter provided obstacles to traveling large distances—this kept life simpler and slower, if no less difficult.  Now, the speed of modern travel and the comfort of warm cars has made it easy to become “heedless of the wind and weather.”  Of course, we’re lucky to be able to travel—except for the times we’re like those poor people now snarled in the snowfall on the East Coast.

So, noting such dramatic exceptions, I still think that in our time the winter cannot require us to slow down, especially in this local climate.  Winter can’t make us–but it still invites us–to take some time, stay inside, and go inward personally, to reflect and rest.

Sometimes the only thing that can make us pause or slow down is not our conscious choice but a crisis, like freezing rain, a power outage, an illness.  A hardworking friend has told me that he rarely has to take sick time and stay at home, but when he does get sick it gives him permission to let go.  It insists that he let go.  Being sick enough to have to stay home in bed–but not so ill that you are totally out of it–can be like a vacation, only you don’t get frequent flier miles for it.  Of course, many workers in our state and nation have no paid sick time for family needs or personal illness, and for those without health insurance, an illness can be a disaster, rather than a break from hard work.  Maybe it’s better not to count on a crisis to slow us down.

It takes intention and effort to take a break from our demanding lives.  How about that—it takes effort to let go!  For example, I try to counteract my December stress by keeping to my morning meditation and to my exercise routine as much as I can. I try to get a good night’s sleep.  But I’m not sure any of it works.  Even with all this, I still feel crazy, chaotic and cranky!  I can barely imagine how much worse off I would be without some ways to ground myself.  Actually I can remember Decembers past when I was much more frenzied.  Once was in such a distracted hurry that I backed into someone in a parking lot.  Another time, I filled my gas tank at a self-serve station and drove a mile down the road before I realized that I hadn’t paid.
I guess I’m better now.  I still dislike the early sunsets of this time of year, but I try to counteract my resentment by getting up from my desk in the afternoon at 4:30 or 5:00 and going for a short walk in the neighborhood.  It’s a way to ease myself into the evening, to greet the darkness instead of cursing it, as well as to get one last glimpse of daylight.  This helps me think of winter as an gentle invitation, rather than as a curse.  A song written by Shelley Jackson Denham says:  “Dark of winter, soft and still, your quiet calm surrounds me.  Let my thoughts go where they will; ease my mind profoundly.  And then my soul will sing a song, a blessed song of love eternal.  Gentle darkness, soft and still, bring your quiet to me.”  (SLT hymnal #55)

I can’t say for sure that any spiritual practice makes a big difference in my experience of the season, but I trust that it helps, even if I’m not able to do it every day.  It’s act of trust and faith that something is going on under the surface of life, something is worth waiting for.  That’s the message of our UU spiritual heritage:   Something is worth waiting for–in every single person, in each one of us.  The late Andrew Wyeth, a painter from Pennsylvania, said he preferred the landscape of a northern winter to that of spring.  He said:  “Something waits beneath [a winter landscape] — the whole story doesn’t show.”

I’ve been thinking of life as a garden, in particular a west-coast winter garden.  Rosalie Wright  has written (in Sunset magazine, 1999) that winter “is the quietest time in a garden.  But just because it looks quiet doesn’t mean that nothing is happening.  The soil, open to the sky, absorbs the pure rainfall while microorganisms convert tilled-under fodder into usable nutrients for the next crop of plants.  The feasting earthworms tunnel along… preparing [the soil] to welcome the seeds and bare roots to come.”

By the time Christmas arrives, I may not have accomplished all my tasks and goals for the month.  I will have experienced my sad, anxious and cranky times.  But I also will be surprised now and then—and have already had surprises, such as when I can see a bigger picture, when I can feel that things are okay however they are happening, however they might happen. If I don’t spend energy fighting against the unpleasant moments of life, I can make room for the hidden, pleasant moments to emerge.  I make room for gladness and grace.

Maybe some of you can find a simple practice to give yourself:  taking a break, sitting in silence, noticing the breath, giving thanks, or otherwise choosing to give yourself a moment before doing the next thing.  To me, that’s the wisdom of the season—an invitation to tend our lives as gently as gardener in the winter.

Winter is a time of preparation—of watching as well as tending.  This means both activity and waiting, motion and rest.  Life’s gifts can’t be ripped open like a wrapped package.  If we watch and wait, and give some attention and faith to what is under the surface of life, its gifts open themselves.

Every person’s life is a reason for gratitude.  It’s a gift.  Life is a gift worthy of tending like a winter garden, worth our patience and our attention.

May you make room for blessings this coming week, this winter season, and in all the days to come.  May you be blessed.

So may it be.  Amen.


[i] http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/california-winter/

 

[ii] http://www.history.com/content/christmas/the-real-story-of-christmas/an-outlaw-christmas



Pastoral Prayer on Solstice Sunday 12/21/08

Solstice Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008
UU Society of Sacramento, CA

Let us take a deep breath together, in and out.
Now please join me in the spirit of reflection as I offer this prayer for the season.

Eternal Source of Love and Grace, we give you thanks for the gift of life and the gift of this new day. As people of all ages, we have gathered here this morning to receive and to give the gift of community. We are blessed to be together.
The month of December links together holidays from varied spiritual and cultural traditions. As we acknowledge the diversity of heritage and expression, let us affirm humanity’s longing for understanding, respect and peace. As we mark the sun’s change and these days of diminished light, let us open our minds and hearts to insights and wisdom from many sources.
Let the Winter Solstice remind us of our dependence on the sun, this planet Earth and the generosity of the oceans, rivers, lands, plants and creatures of the world. Let us know that we are embraced by nature, and part of it. Let us care for the earth.
Holidays for many of us are a time to remember those who have died, including those we’ve lost in the past year. Whatever causes of grief or sadness any of us may have, let us hold ourselves, and one another, with tenderness.
The coming days and weeks are a time of reunion. For all those who are traveling, we send our wishes for safe journeys. For those receiving guests, we wish for ease and authenticity. May our connections with others be blessed with kindness and gratitude. When circumstances make it hard to feel grateful, let us respond with patience and kindness, for ourselves no less than for others.
Let our prayers extend beyond these walls to all those those in places near and far who are sick, starving, or homeless and those in zones of war and occupation, both the people serving there and those who call such places their home. May love reach around the globe to comfort and sustain them.
The Christmas observance includes the telling of an ancient story–the birth of a baby and the rebirth of hope. May our own deeds and words help us to reclaim hope and restore the vision of goodwill in the human family and peace on Earth.

So may it be, blessed be, and amen. Now let us take a few moments of silence together. Our silence will be ended by music.