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Last year, for my birthday, Ralph surprised me with a certificate for a hot air balloon ride. It was something I have wanted to do for a long time, and we decided to add it to a business trip I had this spring in northern California.
We woke early to a beautiful sunny day, and headed to the airfield in Santa Rosa. I was surprisingly calm until the pilot told us it might be too windy to fly. He blew up a small party size balloon and let it go. It vanished within seconds into the sky. “It might be too windy; we’ll wait a bit.” he said to the small group on the tarmac. I had heard the term, “send up a test balloon” in meetings; I hadn’t realized it was literal when it came to ballooning.
About fifteen minutes later, he sent up another one. It too disappeared quickly.Then another, with the same results. Then another. It disappeared too quickly. And then, he said, “We’re going to go for it. I think I can manage the wind.”
By this point, I was pretty anxious. I remembered the balloon crash in Egypt earlier in the year that had killed everyone on board. I texted both of my children, “We’re going; I love you” messages – just in case they were the last messages they would ever hear from me. I wrote last minute loving messages on Facebook and Twitter, just in case they were my last published words. I climbed into the balloon basket with a beating heart and prayers on my lips: “wherever I am, God is, and all is well.”
And it was. We barely felt the balloon rise…we glided over vineyards and forests and a subdivision of houses with dogs barking at the balloon’s shadow. The views were beautiful. We landed easily and applauded the pilot and ourselves for our bravery. We went on to meet friends for a lovely afternoon of wine tasting in Napa Valley. We had reservations at a hotel about 20 minutes away. I rode with my woman friend in her car, while Ralph and her husband were in our rental car ahead. I told her it had been a perfect day.
About five minutes later, we were sitting, stuck in traffic, and she commented that it was unusual to be in such a long line of cars late on a Saturday afternoon. Her cell phone rang. It was Bill, her husband. “Ralph’s rental car was hit. I think it’s totaled. We were pushed into the car ahead of us. I’m bleeding but okay. Call 911.” He clicked off.
Time stopped as we pulled over to the shoulder and began to inch our way forward. We saw Bill and Ralph standing on the side of the road. They had been hit from behind by a driver who seemed to be pinned into his seat. Ralph and Bill were both bruised, and had contusions from the side airbags. The rental car was indeed totaled. The police, the paramedics, the fire truck, and the ambulance for the other driver finally arrived. We left the rental car by the side of the road, somehow removed our bags from the crunched trunk, and headed to the hotel, shaken, relieved, grasping that it could have been so much worse.
And I couldn’t help think how once again I had totally worried about the wrong thing…that the balloon ride over Napa had caused me anticipatory anxiety while driving in a car on a road where almost everyone was spending the day drinking wine hadn’t even raise a shred of alarm.
Even more, I once again realized just how vulnerable we are, how insecure our existence really is, how much worse this story could have ended, how our lives could have changed in that instant. How lives are changed every day in such unexpected moments.
As life changed this week forever in the town of Moore, Oklahoma.As it did for some of us and many of our neighbors in New York and New Jersey because of Hurricane Sandy last October. As it did for 26 people and their families in Newtown, CT this past December.As it did at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon two months ago. As it did for some of our neighbors on MetroNorth last Friday night.
And life changes forever, when the test results from the doctor are ironically labeled as positive and the dire diagnosis is given…or the job is terminated…or the police show up on your doorstep with news…or the phone rings in the middle of the night. We have all been there, the time stopping moment that divides our lives forever, into before and after the accident, before and after the illness, before and after the death of a loved one.
It surely seems that this current church year has been one of the most difficult we can remember, filled with natural disasters and with disasters caused by deranged people. We have collectively shared these horrific events and we have held our breaths together. As I watched the news of the Metro North crash from a hotel room in Peru last week, I found myself thinking: “God, can you give us a break?”
The tragedy of last week’s Oklahoma tornado, perhaps most especially, the sudden, unexpected, once again deaths of small elementary school children, brought us together again. In interview after interview on television, residents of Moore thanked God for sparing their lives and their homes – without one reporter asking had God just let others lose their lives or their children or have their homes demolished? And yet, I too said “Thank God” when I saw Ralph and Bill standing on the side of the road when the rental car was totaled. In those moments, gratitude trumps sound theology.
At these times of crisis, the people who weren’t spared often ask “Why God?”or “Where was God?” or in the words of Jesus, “Why has God forsaken me?” Others seek to give God a role in what happened. I remember a conversation with a man on Metro North shortly after the attack on 911. He said to me, “God must have meant this to happen. Otherwise he would have turned the planes around.” (Pause) I was stumped how to respond to him.
We hear people’s religious response to tragedies, and for most of us, they ring hollow. “Everything happens for a reason.” “It was meant to be.” Some fundamentalist religious leaders even claim that the tragedy is “is God’s punishment for…” feminists, or abortion, or gay people…
Blaming God for tragedies or thanking God for being spared them is too limited an understanding of the divine for me. I think most of us reject the Jim Carrey or George Burns movie views of God, as controlling all of us, as if God is a puppeteer or sitting at some master computer answering email requests. A recent New Yorker cartoon had God in heaven saying, “I can’t talk to you right now. I’m deciding on a Hail Mary football pass.”
Theodicy is the theological construct for understanding how to reconcile an omnipotent, beneficent God with evil and struggle in the world. Gottfried Leibniz is credited with coining the word “theodicy”, literally “justifying God” in 1710, but questioning the existence of God in the face of evil and suffering is as old as monotheism. The Greeks and Romans explained evil through their stories of their gods’ imperfections and petty jealousies and fights: remember the story of opening Pandora’s Box, which released evils into the world. Christians, with their perfect, exemplar God, had a more difficult problem with explaining evil, which is partially why Augustine came up with his understandings of original sin and human disobedience to God.
It is natural for us to want to believe that tragic things happen for a reason. We want to believe that there is a greater plan, a purpose to our suffering, a lesson that we must learn, and so on. But, I increasingly understand that sometimes the bad things are just random. The human created tragedies like Boston, Sandy Hook and last week’s killing of a gay man in NYC happen because of hatred, or ignorance, or extreme mental illness. The tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis occur because of nature, and increasingly perhaps because of how our lack of concern and stewardship of the earth contributes to these destructive climate changes.
The fact is that humans have always lived in an insecure world. 9/11 did not make us insecure; homegrown or international terrorists haven’t made us insecure. To be human is to be vulnerable, and as Buddhism teaches us, everyone suffers in life. In the late 1960’s, Rev. William Sloane Coffin said, reflecting what was going on in the world at that time, said, “the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.” How even more that describes our globalized, 24/7 instant news cycle world of today.
We turn to our religions and our church communities for help during these times. Right after the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, all of the ministers at churches in Westport reported that they had standing room only Sunday services. The same was true that first Sunday after September 11, 2001. People turn to their church community when we need help understanding and making meaning of tragedy around us…but I think it’s more than a desire for theological or liturgical answers. We come together at these times for the same reason that we come together for memorial services: for the comfort, and kindness, and community we offer each other. We need one another. We cannot face the tragedies alone. We know that it is in community that we can tolerate the suffering and the dying that we all must face. Following tragedies, we live with a heightened sense of vulnerability a sense of how fragile life is, how everything can change in an instant…how we too could have been at the finish line, or our children or grandchildren at that school…we are reminded of how short our lives really are, and how we must choose to live as Forrest Church often wrote, so that “our lives are worth dying for.”
It would be psychologically easier to believe in an individual God ordained plan for each of us – or that this world is only a dress rehearsal for the next better world. But, for most of us, that doesn’t make sense.
As Unitarian Universalists, we know the answer to our suffering is not a better life some day, but that we are living into what Reverends John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker label a “radical realized eschatology”. Our Unitarian Universalist world view begins with the understanding that “we are already standing on holy ground”, that it is this earth, this time that is the only one we know we have been given, the only one we may ever have.Hope comes from our understanding that we have the skills, the relationships, and the love to create a better world now, here, with our love and our commitment to justice. When things are bad, hope may be all we have to keep us from giving up. As my colleague Rabbi Sandy Sasso has written, “Hope demands that we make a commitment to work toward whatever it is that we hope for.” We are called to be co-creators of a world characterized by justice, integrity, and right relations. We are call to heal a world broken by poverty, discrimination, violence, preventable disease, and sexual injustice. In the words of the poet, we can be the change we want to see in the world. We are the ones we have been waiting for.
But there isn’t anything new about any of this. The same messages are found in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and the sacred texts of many other religions. For example, the book of the Psalms in the Bible, written and collected more than 2000 years ago, contains 150 poems that are cries for help: the various authors lament their poverty, their illnesses, their military opponents, wars, natural disasters, and their abiding sense of powerlessness. They were writing in a post exilic world, their religion and their community widely disbursed as victims of oppression and domination.
And yet, the Psalms are simultaneously also songs of praise, thanksgiving and joy. In my book, “Meditations on the Good News”, I chose 6 psalms out of a total of 40 passages, to illustrate that the Bible can inspire optimism for our lives today. And I think they offer clues to how we can live well despite our vulnerability and lack of security.
The 23rd Psalm is probably the most familiar of all the psalms. It is the first psalm I wanted to memorize, and it is the one people most often requested that I recite when I visited hospital patients during my training or when I officiate at funerals. You surely remember its beginning: “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God makes me lie down in green pastures; God leaves me besides still waters; God restores my soul.”
The image of God as shepherd is deeply comforting, even in 21st-century America when many of us have never actually seen a shepherd tending a flock except in paintings or movies, or as I did last week while I was in Peru, on vacation. Yet I think we understand and resonate to the image of a beneficent presence being with us, watching over us, keeping us safe, fed, and on the path of goodness, of holiness, even if we don’t actually believe in such a supreme being. Our hearts yearn for not wanting anything except to be satisfied by the lives we do have. I resonate to this image of a beneficent being with us–removed, yet gently guiding and providing for us always, even if I struggle about whether I believe it is true.
Many years ago, Ralph and I spent time on a goat farm in southern France, and we served as shepherds for a few days. The rolling hills stretched beyond where one could see; the hills were lit by the warmth of the sun. After walking the goats from their pens to the hill, we were told that our task was simply to watch and make sure none of the goats wandered off alone. At the end of the day, our job was to round them up and lead them back to the village. The goats fanned over the hills, and from a distance, we kept a sleepy eye on them so that none strayed too far. Everything the goats needed for the day was provided by those grassy hills and the stream that meandered through them. There was nothing else they needed; they did not want.
They didn’t need our help to eat, drink, sleep, or do whatever other goat-like things they did during the day. Their days were framed by the essence of “goat”, and all they needed was periodic gentle guidance. Our purpose there was only to assure their safety and their return home. We sat quietly, observing, enjoying the sun, letting the day pass, needing only a few times to encourage a wayward goat to return closer to the others. Relationship restored, we could go back to our own quiet meditation.
I remind myself that in uncertain times, perhaps we too need to spend more days like shepherds or maybe it is more says like the goats. Rather than trying to direct our children, our employees, our partners–indeed the world–with our desires and needs for them, we might step back and view ourselves as gentle guides. Our main job is to give others the space to be the essence of who they are and to encourage them in relationship to others. As some of you know, I’m not always so good at this, so I keep a sticky note on my office computer monitor that reminds me to “bless more, control less.”
The 23rd Psalm also reminds us of the struggle we face because we live with certainty of dying: “yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil” and yet it promises that “goodness and mercy shall follow all the days of my life…my whole life long.” The psalm reminds us that we have the opportunity to live and create our lives now.
And that’s the crux I think of how we live well with uncertainty and vulnerability. It’s about finding out what gives us joy, what lights us up, what fills our lives with goodness and mercy. It’s about loving each other well, and always being kind. It’s about living well DESPITE the uncertainty. In World War ll Britain, the public relations campaign suggested people, “Keep Calm and Carry On”, to go on with one’s everyday life despite the stress and horrors. As poet Mary Oliver has recently written, “Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing and gave it up. And took my old body and went out into the morning, and sang.”
This past Friday marked the 10th anniversary of my ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister and your endorsement of my community ministry. I am so grateful to you and to this community for supporting my work in the world these past ten years. It has truly been a journey that has let my heart sing and has provided me with the most extraordinary opportunities to be of service in the world. I feel so blessed for the privilege of my vocation. So often in difficult times in my own life or the lives of those closest to me, I have been grateful for the ministerial training that has taught me to be non-anxious in the face of crisis, to be fully present to the person in front of me, and for opportunities to deepen my own faith and understanding. And I want to publicly thank Frank Hall for being such a loving partner and mentor to me on my ministerial journey.
Through my work, I recently met a woman therapist named Elana Rosenbaum. She is a cancer survivor, a colleague of Jon Kabat Zinn at the Center for Mindfulness, and the author of “Being Well, Even When Your Sick.” It’s a guide on mindfulness meditation for people with cancer, but I found it very useful in helping me understand more about how mindfulness meditation can help with daily anxieties and uncertain times. She writes, “Control is a myth, and yet it is real. Having a sense of control is like riding a bike over varied terrain. It changes and we change. To remain balanced, we’re constantly adjusting our position, shifting gears, and altering our pace and speed. This takes practice, but the more we ride, the more skillful and confident we become.” In other words, we may not be able to control events, but we can control how we relate to them. A short passage in her book stayed with me. She was writing about how she deals with how anxious she becomes before her annual CT scans to assess if the lymphoma has returned and if the stem cell transplant is still working. She writes, “I must consciously stop and remind myself not to jump ahead. I may not know that the test will show, but I can feel my breath, taste my food, and smile at my husband. He likes this approach too. If I stay calm, he is also better able to manage his concern.”
She offers this short meditation as an introduction to mindfulness: (Do it with me)
In breath, out breath.
I can stop and focus my attention.
In breath, out breath.
I need not struggle.
In breath, out breath.
I am worthy of love and peace.
In breath, out breath.
I am here. I am well.
The wonderful Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us similarly that every day, no matter how challenging we perceive it will be, should begin with gratitude and a reminder that life is temporary. In one reflection, he writes, “Every twenty four hour day is a tremendous gift to us. So we all should learn to live in a way that makes joy and happiness possible. We can do this. …I think to myself that this day is a day to live fully, and I make the vow to live each moment of it in a way that is beautiful, solid, and free. …You can do the same thing when you wake up. Breathe in and tell yourself that a new day has been offered to you and you have to be here to live it.” We choose to bring ourselves fully to each day, regardless of the circumstances we are facing.
Life is fragile, and uncertain times are nothing new. We face uncertaintly in our own lives – we face uncertainty as a church community during this time of transition – we face it in the events of the world beyond us. Twentieth century Unitarian theologian Joseph Barth wrote, “life is a miracle, and death is a fact…use that miracle for all that it is work of loving, striving, understanding, studying and playing, trying, searching, and…[enjoying]. ”
His words echo a parable that I learned early on in my ministry. I offered it to a small group at a summer service in 2005, but I hope those of you have heard it before will enjoy the reminder as I close this sermon. It is the story of the monk and the crystal glass. The people of the town came to the wise old monk (the monks in these stories are always wise and old), and asked him how could he be happy in the midst of all the suffering, of the certain knowledge that everyone would die, that bad days were sure to come. The monk held up a beautiful glass on his desk. “You see this glass? It was given to me by a special friend. I love this glass. But, I know that one day the wind may blow and knock it over, or someone may accidentally knock it off my desk. I know that the glass is already broken, and so I choose to enjoy it immensely.”
The glass is already broken. Choose to treasure it. Choose to enjoy it immensely.
Adapted from the closing words of the Unity tradition…have substituted the word “Love” for God to be inclusive of us all…
May the light of Love surround us
May love enfold us
May the power of Love protect us
May love watch over us
Where we are, Love is
And all is well.