In this time of year, many of us are reflecting on how to make a change for the better. One thing to consider is how we respond when we get into tight corners. This sermon was written for the Unitarian Universalists of Fallston, September 23, 2012.
7 months ago
Monday was Rosh Hashana. As you may know, I have an interfaith family, and my kids are Jewish. We celebrated the Jewish new year by taking Mokey and Wembley to the creek in our neighborhood for Taschlich. The idea with Taschlich is to let go of your past sins by casting them into the water, thus freeing yourself to start fresh. Bread stands in for your sins as you release the past. This ritual is in the context of a tradition where we make amends to other people and to the Holy. Taschlich is not a replacement for reflection and reconciliation, it is a symbol of the process we’re in the middle of during the High Holy Days.
At any rate, that was the idea behind our outing on Monday. We told the twins we were going on a “special walk for Rosh Hashana,” and that we would bring bread to throw while we “think about things we’re all done with.” We also brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They each took a bit of bread and threw it as hard as they could into the groundcover about a foot in front of them, between us and the water. The adults had a little better luck, throwing the bread all the way down the bank and into the creek below. Ducks mobbed the area. After a few rounds of this, Wembley raised his hands, empty, stretching toward the sky and the water.
I thought about the kinds of sins that I get into when I’m anxious. I can be impatient and cranky with others, make rash decisions, or fail to show up for someone who needs me. I have an intention of doing better with patience and compassion. I think I probably will miss the mark again, but I could let this batch of offenses go rather than dwell on them.
After the loose bread had been offered to the elements and the sandwiches had been eaten, I asked again what kinds of things we were all done with. My kids are two years old, so I wasn’t expecting elaborate answers, I just wanted to lay the groundwork for future years. “We have our own bread,” said Mokey. Probably what she meant was that snack is the most memorable part of any religious ritual.
If I read into it, her comment evokes some thoughts about what we emotionally release and what we keep. There are some thoughts and feelings that feed us. We hold on to those. On the other hand, some things don’t do us any good to ruminate on, but letting those experiences out into the world might be a benefit to someone else, like the ducks feasting on bread. When there’s a chance for reconciliation, mistakes become learning experiences. And learning can be shared. In the famous “Last Lecture,” computer scientist Randy Pausch said, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.” If I make a turn for the better based on experience, that’s the bread I offer to the world. Remembering the capacity for change and growth is something that nourishes me, something I keep. We have our own bread.
Another Rosh Hashana tradition is to wish for each other to “be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.” The image is of a giant ledger of rights and wrongs, open for updating during the High Holidays. We want everybody to end the year in the black. For me as a Universalist, I think of the Book of Life more as an ongoing story, one that we can write each other into by our compassion and curiosity for one another, a book we can write ourselves into with our active participation in harmony with the sacred. One of the ways we know we’re working with Life is when we recognize flow and change. Biological life is ongoing, persistent, dynamic, and a little bit chaotic. When someone tells me, “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life,” I hear, “May you be an active participant in a story about positive change.” May it be so for all of us.
The questions for Rosh Hashana are, in some ways, the same questions that many Pagans ask as they consider justice at the Fall Equinox, and the same questions that many people involved with school ask at the beginning of the academic year: How can we change? How can we improve? How can we make choices that sustain life? Coming back to these big questions on a regular basis is important, because in the day-to-day moments, we often feel backed into the corner. Some creative, nourishing choices are difficult to see when we’re looking at a problem too closely or in isolation. Starting the year with room to grow requires some mutual support.
In thinking about this morning’s story, and how to face the tight corners we get into throughout the year, a few ideas come up: Redefine the problem. Maintain a spiritual practice. Find and care for divinity in each other. I think if we can do these things, we can write our stories into an ongoing, thriving Book of Life: Redefine the problem. Maintain a spiritual practice. Find and care for the divinity in each other.
Redefine the Problem
The metaphor of turning is a strong theme in the Jewish High Holidays. That can mean turning toward a spiritual life or returning to a direction congruent with your values. I also like to think about turning over a puzzle as you figure out how to solve it. Get a different perspective. Open up to new possibilities.
The main character in this morning’s story turns things over repeatedly. Every time he seems to be in a no-win situation, he sees a new opportunity. He solves problems with cleverness and creativity. He does his best to arrange things so that everybody, himself included, comes out the other end with their heads still attached. Rather than wondering how he would return to shoe repair, wood cutting, or water-carrying, he re-defined the problem as one of adaptation.
Not that I think it would be wrong for the main character to band together with the shoe repair person’s union and protest unjust labor laws. I also recognize that, in Jewish wisdom tales, the king is often a metaphor for the ruler of the universe. Sometimes the universe puts up obstacles, and sometimes we have an opportunity to decide how we want to respond.
Universalist minister Olympia Brown is another person who found a way to win by turning a problem over. The Universalist Church had not yet ordained a woman in 1860, as she was applying and getting rejected from theological schools. She was persistent until she was admitted to the Universalist Divinity School at Saint Lawrence University. Quoting now from the Dictionary of UU Biography: “Ebenezer Fisher, President of the [school], offered her admission but added that he ‘did not think women were called to the ministry. But I leave that between you and the Great Head of the Church.’ This, Olympia thought, ‘was exactly where it should be left. But when I arrived, I was told I had not been expected and that Mr. Fisher had said I would not come as he had written so discouragingly to me. I had supposed his discouragement was my encouragement.’”
Even after excelling in her studies and as a student preacher, she knew she could not be ordained through the usual channels. She took her case directly to the council meeting of the regional Universalist Association, and her ordination was affirmed by the General Convention. Rather than asking, “How can I get the local council to ordain me?” Olympia asked, “How can I make a change for equality?” She redefined the problem.
I am also reminded of another fictional character backed into a different corner, Captain Kirk in Star Trek, and his response to the Kobayashi Maru test at Starfleet Academy. The test is a battle simulation designed to illuminate a potential officer’s character when faced with a no-win situation involving death. In the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we find out that Kirk reprogrammed the simulator before he took the test for a third time. He said he didn’t believe in no-win situations. If this morning’s Time for All Ages story and the UU history bit are both hard to follow and you’re trying to remember this afternoon what I said, remember Captain Kirk.
I think what ties these two fictional characters and one real person together is that they approached the idea of a no-win situation with skepticism. Just like we willingly suspend disbelief to an extent when we’re watching a play or reading a novel, these stories are about suspending disbelief in a negative outcome. That gives us a little more room to redefine the problem.
Maintain a Spiritual Practice
Another thing that rings true for me about this morning’s Time for All Ages story is that the adaptable character maintains a spiritual practice. He has faith, but he doesn’t wait for God to solve his problems directly. I would suggest that his spiritual practice not only helps him to stay optimistic, but it increases his capacity to step back, reflect, recharge, and approach his challenges with a clear head. You can believe or not that God puts his opportunities to adapt in front of him, but it makes sense to me that a practice of openness and gratitude makes it easier to see solutions when they come along.
Singing helps me do that. Or, at least it did. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m listening for traffic reports on the radio or because gremlins keep turning the tuning pegs on my guitar, but for whatever reason I haven’t been singing as much as I used to. I mentioned a little earlier that I’ve been allowing my anxiety to make me cranky lately. I mostly notice it in relation to the beginning of the school year in my grad program. When I haven’t been engaged in my work with this congregation (which gives me strength and hope) or my family, I’ve been busy stewing in my own juices, generally feeling trapped in a pressure cooker of my own devising. Driving around one morning last week, I was so grumpy I had to switch off NPR. I wished I had something that would give me a nudge forward, something that would make me believe in a new beginning. In the silence, I remembered the song, “Fire of Commitment,” a contemporary UU hymn by Jason Shelton. (It’s #1028 in Singing the Journey.)
When the fire of commitment sets our minds and souls ablaze
When our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way
When we live with deep assurance of the flame that burns within
Then our promise finds fulfillment and our future can begin
Beginning the future sounded pretty good to me. I started to feel a glimmer of possibility. I realized that it had been too long since I sang spiritual music, too long since I blasted something so starkly denominational from my speakers, and entirely too long since I connected my spiritual path with the work I was doing outside of church. I had forgotten a tool that, when I used it regularly, brought me hope and optimism. I sang the whole thing again. By the time I got where I was going, I had some ideas about gratitude and reconciliation, and some other ideas about focusing on work that I’m passionate about. It was a good day.
This morning’s story reminded me of another situation where people chose their tools as a spiritual practice. I’m talking about the Polish Brethren of the 1500s and 1600s, sometimes called Socinians after one of the theologians from that movement, Faustus Socinus. These were some of our Unitarian ancestors. One of the things that made them break away from the Calvinists is that they believed in free will. Another was that they did not believe in the Trinity. The Polish Brethren taught the brotherhood of all people. They believed in the separation of church and state (remember, this is Renaissance Europe). Based on their beliefs of the sovereignty of one God, equality among humans, and the separation of church and state, the Polish Brethren were pacifists and refused military service.
(Let me digress for a minute to differentiate between this part of our heritage and our current faith movement. These days, Unitarian Universalists have a variety of beliefs about the best way to achieve peace, stability, and justice. We have proud military members and veterans as well as flexible peace activists and strict pacifists. We have some people who are more than one of those things.)
Anyway, the Polish Brethren were pacifists. At the time in Poland, it was almost mandatory that well-dressed gentlemen wear a szablas, a kind of saber. The Polish Brethren wore wooden swords. Perhaps you see where I am going with the parallels to this morning’s Time for All Ages story. By keeping a symbol of their faith at their side instead of a sharp sword, the Polish Brethren had a physical reminder of the kinds of tools available to them to meet their challenges. There’s a saying that, when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. I have to wonder what every problem looks like when all you have is a symbol of free will and equality.
Spiritual practices help us keep our inner “tools” handy for the challenges that come along. Otherwise the only tools we have are the ones being sold in the media. Maybe we can find something useful in popular culture, or maybe we’ll end up with the reality TV attitude of “I’m not here to make friends.” I believe that we can maintain our life-affirming, growth-encouraging resources by using them regularly. Whether your practice is mindful walking, prayer, yoga, baking, writing thank-you notes, or something else, I believe that habits of the soul help us to find creative solutions.
Find and Care For Divinity in Each Other
The hero of this morning’s story had one more thing that helped him to see the possibilities for growth and change. He welcomed the stranger. When the shah in disguise came to his house, he shared what he had. Although it led to some harrowing adventures, it also led to new experiences and eventually a better job than the one he started with. His ability to treat others with compassion meant he not only shared a meal with the shah, he had no trouble imagining himself working alongside people in different professions. Finally, his creative and dramatic solution to the sword dilemma meant that he saved not only himself, but also the life of another person. The hero’s ability to adapt rested on his respect for other people.
In Jewish wisdom, it is said that when one saves a life, one saves a world. Sounds a bit like interdependence. We know that the health of the whole depends on all of us. Our communities are stronger when more of us are fed and housed. Reaching out to someone who needs help has a positive ripple effect. Save a life, save a world.
One of our UU principles is respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. This comes from the Universalist side of our heritage, which says that no one is beyond the reach of Divine love. For some of us who are theists, we see a reflection of the Holy in every face. For some of us who are not theists, we look for all of the holiness we expect to find in the people around us and in the world as it is. UUs get along pretty well with the Quakers and their theology of the light within every person. I think we can agree on finding and caring for divinity in each other.
I preach about caring for each other a lot. That’s not because I think something is missing. It’s because this congregation constantly teaches me about caring and I want to reflect it back. The talent and energy that is drawn forth from people here in the service of compassion is astounding. It matters. If you sent a card, held someone in prayer, brought a meal, showed up to honor someone, sent an encouraging text message, it matters. These acts of kindness add up to sustain bodies and spirits. Save a life, save a world.
What I’m asking here is that this congregation continues to practice compassion. You all are rock stars of kindness. Keep doing that, and may others can follow your example. Care for your friend’s cats so that they can be present with someone who needs them. Offer a kind word to care for someone’s spirit, and let that kindness ripple out to everyone they meet. Care for our sidewalk out front, removing obstacles to others, and broaden all of our pathways to wisdom. Care for each other so that we have the strength to find creative solutions in the year ahead.
The Jewish High Holidays and the fall equinox and the beginning of the school year may all call us back to the idea of starting over, of re-committing to our values, of seeing the big picture of our whole system. The turning seasons may set us in motion, turning over problems to find a new perspective. The rhythms of the days and nights may inspire us to maintain a spiritual practice. The cooler weather may bring us together, in close view of the divinity that we care for in each other. May these changes help us to adapt in life-affirming ways. May we all be written into the Book of Life.