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Opening Words: The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I learned a lot in my preaching classes at seminary. We were taught, for example, to make sure our sermons always had a beginning, middle, and an end. We were told to share our lives, but not to ask the congregation for help with our own immediate life concerns. The ministerial code for that is “don’t bleed on them.” We were encouraged to bring some levity into the sermon if we could, to tell stories, and to leave the sermon on a note of hope or possibility. We were told to never forget to look at the front page of the paper (or today I guess Yahoo news!) before leaving for church just in case something really important had happened in the world and needed to be addressed. I particularly learned that lesson the morning many summers ago when I spoke on the Sunday morning that Princess Diana had been killed in a car crash in the tunnel late on a Saturday night and I had no idea until I walked into the church.
So, what’s been on the front page of recent newspapers? A litany of horrors: Ebola, ISIL, teen terrorists, Syria, climate issues, the shooter at the Canadian parliament, another school shooting in Seattle, falling stock market prices. On Thursday this week, I heard an expert on CBS news say that he is now more concerned than ever that there will be a terrorist attack in the U.S. These past few months have been as the choir sang “a dark valley.” It is hard for even the most optimistic among us to not feel that the world is a mess, that there are so many scary possibilities….and how easy it is to get caught up in that anxiety and fear and sense of hopelessness. The run on masks and hand sanitizer as a result of what I’ve heard called “Fear-bola” shows how vulnerable we are to the 24/7 news cycle hysteria. To put Ebola in perspective, I saw a Facebook meme that said, “An American is are more likely to marry Rush Limbaugh or Kim Kardashian than get Ebola….and both would be scarier.” I have a colleague who knowing my public health background keeps asking me if it’s time to be scared of Ebola: the facts are that unless you have been to West Africa, directly exposed to the body fluids of a person with the disease, or served them as a health provider, you are unlikely to get this disease, and you are for sure much more likely to be killed this year by the flu or in a car accident.
But, facts don’t always make us feel better….and the reality is that as the Buddha taught, life is suffering. How many people do you know really well that haven’t experienced serious problems with such important parts of life as their work, marriages, children, relationships, addictions, mental health challenges, serious physical illnesses, anger, their sense of self? About 30% of adults have a major psychiatric disorder at any given point in time: about 50% will have such a disorder in their lifetimes which means almost every family here has dealt with mental illness. Half of all first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, with 2nd and third marriages having even higher rates of divorce. One wag called remarriage the triumph of hope over experience.
And as Universalists, we need to remember that despite our own internal and real struggles, we in Fairfield County live with relative ease compared to most people in the world. One in 8 people in the world go to be hungry each night; every 10 seconds a child somewhere in the world dies from a hunger related disease. One billion children in the world live in poverty: more than a third of the people on our planet live in dire conditions.
And because I always like to remind you about my “day job”, on the issues of sexual injustice that I work on daily in the U.S. and around the world at the Religious Institute, there is acute suffering. An article in the Washington Post this week asked “can only the rich in America afford to have sex”, talking about the attacks on family planning for low income women. Did you know that even today half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended, and that almost 9 in 10 counties do not have an abortion provider? Globally these statistics are even more horrifying: every 90 seconds in the world a woman dies from complications of childbirth or pregnancy, 99% in developing countries. In 37 African countries, it is against the law to be lesbian, gay, or transgender: 4 countries have a death penalty for same sex couples. And while the world’s attention turns to the latest Ebola outbreak, HIV/AIDS still rages, particularly in Africa, home of 60% of all cases of HIV.
So, yes we resonate to Wendell Berry’s words of despair for the world when we wake in the middle of the night, at the least sound, in fear of what our lives and our children’s lives may be. I re-found the Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” this summer shortly after the death of Michael Brown and the police storming the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in army surplus tanks, guns drawn. I understood deep in my bones the desire to go into nature, to rest in the grace of the world and feel free. Like many of you, I find nature to be a great balm. After I’ve walked in the woods, or sat on the beach, or watched a sunset – especially watched a sunset – I often feel a sense of calm and inner peace. Nature can indeed be nurture, reminding us that the beauty of the world can sustain us. The lines from the 23rd psalm often go through my head in nature: she makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me besides still waters; God restores my soul….and its promise, surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.
But the line from Berry’s poem that most struck me this summer — and that I brought with me as a focal point of an 8 day silent retreat — was “the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief”. (REPEAT SLOWLY) Those of you who have heard me preach before know that I have shared that I am a worrier and I have struggled with anxiety and phobias in my life. Like many of you, I surely regularly tax my life with forethought of grief. Our ability to think – or for many of us, overthink – is what distinguishes us from the wild things…yet we can envy the birds and the wild animals that lack of worry.
I sat on the beach one of those mornings on retreat to watch the birds fly, float on the air currents, swoop, swim, and fish to watch what they could teach me. They truly seemed to be totally in the present moment, and I could understand Berry’s words – they indeed did not tax their lives with forethought of grief. And then a smallish seagull swooped down very close to me, dove into the ocean, and pulled out of the water what looked like about an 8 inch fish in this beak. This long fish, at least its own size, hanging down from one side of its mouth to the other, the seagull seemed to pause, not knowing what to do next. And then, I suspect because of some long time evolutionary patterning, he or she swallowed the very large fish whole, and then sat quickly on the shore, stunned, unable to move, or to breathe. It sat stunned for a very long time. I thought to myself, “Sometimes a little forethought is helpful!”
But the fact is that advance worry rarely is. Most of the really dreadful things we experience come without much notice. The most soul searing crises often come out of the blue as so many of you know: the call from the doctor about the test results, the knock by the police on the door, the call from your teenage or young adult child in the middle of the night, the life partner who sits down at breakfast and tells you they are leaving you, the earthquake, tornado or storm that takes away your possessions, the email that I got one evening telling me that my fiscal agent had stolen all our money….in these cases, there is no forethought of grief. We are plunged into a new way of living we never expected.
And so I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about how do we live in difficult times yet maintain a sense of balance, of well- being, despite all that is going on around us, all that is going on within us. I first turned to religion for its answers, and found that Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist traditions all offer us clues.
The books of the Prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures were written during the time of the Babylonian exile, a disastrous time in the history of the Jewish people. Jerusalem had been destroyed, the Temple had been burned to the ground, the Jewish leaders had been executed, and many of the remaining rabbis and people had been exiled to Babylonia. The overarching despair of the first Diaspora is reflected in Psalm 137 which we sometimes sing, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” But even the bleakest of the prophets, Jeramiah, held out for the promise of better days. The book of Jeremiah contains these words: “For Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” For Jews, the God in this passage is a benevolent God who wants the best for us. If we don’t believe in God, we can still have faith in ourselves, we can know that in another Biblical verse, when weeping comes at night, joy comes again in the morning. Or as Psalm 37 counsels, “Be still before the Lord and wait in patience. Do not fret, it only leads to evil.” These passages can remind ourselves that we have had the resiliency to come through dark times before, and we can reach out for help and support and do it again.
In the Christian scriptures, we know that even Jesus worries and is discouraged. Towards the end of his days, the text says Jesus is “grieved and agitated” and he prays three times in the Garden of Gethsemane, as we too have prayed or pleaded in difficult times, “take this pain from me, take this burden from me, please don’t let me suffer like this. On the Cross Jesus even cries, “Why have you forsaken me?” These passages remind us that everyone suffers, even human exemplars, that we are not alone. If we are theists, we can rest in God’s love for us, know that perhaps it is at these times of darkness that God is most with us. We can pray that God’s will be done and to be open to where this difficult time is bringing me. And if I am not a theist, or on days I’m more agnostic than anything else, this story of an agitated and despairing Jesus can remind me that I am not alone. We can believe that our lives are unfolding as they are supposed to be; we can recognize even in our most difficult times that others still need us to be there for them.
One of my favorite lines in the Christian Scriptures is in the book of Matthew: “do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” When we are worried about our physical or mental health, or finances, or our children, or our relationship, or the fear of ISIL terrorists on our soil, we’re often hurting ourselves today because of what could possibly happen in the future. We create additional anxiety and stress in our minds and then in our bodies by our obsessive thoughts rather than what we can do to address the situation today. As mindfulness meditation teaches, “don’t suffer twice.” “Don’t suffer twice” reminds us not to let the present moment be drained by our fears of what might or might not happen in the future.
Buddhism reminds us as you know to show up, speak with truth, do it with enthusiasm, and not get attached to the outcome. According to Buddhist thought, life is suffering, suffering comes from desire, and suffering can be eliminated by not becoming attached through the 8 fold path. The Buddha speaks about the “second arrow.” As Thich Naht Hanh describes it, “when an arrow strikes you, you feel pain. If a second arrow comes and strikes you in the same spot, the pain will be ten times worse. The Buddha advised that when you have some pain in your body or your mind, breathe in and out and recognize the significance of the pain, but don’t exaggerate its importance. If you stop to worry, be fearful, to protest, to be angry about the pain, then you magnify the pain ten times or more. Your worry is the second arrow. You should protect yourself and not allow the second arrow to come; because the second arrow comes from you.”
Our Unitarian Universalist heritage offers suggestions as well. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that salvation is universal: none of us are condemned to lives of hell, here on this plane or in the next one either. According to Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker’s wonderful article in a recent CLF magazine on our theology, “UUism is clear that the ultimate is present here and now, and can be grasped and experienced, even if only partially, within this limited frame of our existence…there is also a devotion to the flourishing of life. Our sacred circle draws us together in passionate love for life. ..We do not look to a world to come as more valuable than this world. We cherish our bodies, this earth, this time and place within our grasp. We are devoted to the intimate, intricate, and unshakeable reality that all life is connected. We honor and respect the bonds that tie each to all, that weave us into an inescapable net of mutuality.” In other words, it is together in community we can thrive and help ourselves in difficult times.
There is a sign over my desk that reads: “Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” When we feel that peace – about ourselves, or a relationship, or our career, or art, or God – we can feel truly engaged in our lives and more alive. We feel centered in ourselves. We may feel a sense of grace, that all is right with the world. The question is how we can feel that way more often.
One night on my silent retreat, I went to watch the sunset alone. I felt a deep sense of peace, of feeling at-one. There was no anxiety. No thoughts. This peace. This quiet. Breathe in. Breathe out. I am safe. I am comfortable. I am comforted. I rested into the changing colors, the breeze, the quiet birds singing. I was still and in the peace of the wild things. I took the time to breathe that peace into my cells, because I knew it was fleeting. In fact I think it lasted for 10 minutes! But I can bring that memory back again.
Modern psychology and mindfulness practice also offer some possible answers to being more at balance and at peace. Many of you may know more about this than I do. Mindfulness mediation teaches us to breathe in the current moment, find safety in the current moment by observing our breath quietly, practicing self-acceptance, just observing our reactions as thoughts and feelings and not necessarily as reality, by understand as a therapist taught me a long time ago, “we have feelings, we are not our feelings.” Thich Nhat Hanh, in a wonderful book of daily meditations that Ralph and I read each day at breakfast, says, “Practice mindfulness of the breath. The object of your attention is simply the breath. Stop thinking about the past, the future, your pain, your plans and so forth, and start to really be here, body and mind united.”
There is also a burgeoning field of positive psychology and happiness research that we can apply to our lives. In one study, they divided people into five groups and measured their happiness level before and after. One group was urged to smile more, one to write down 3 things they were grateful for each night, one to remember a good thing or a pleasant place when they were feeling stressed, one to think about all the pleasant things they like in their life, and one to do nothing special. Each of the first four groups-the smilers, the gratitude journalers, and the people who remembered pleasant things or what they value — they all improved their feelings of happiness. We can offer ourselves such moments of Sabbath, moments of peace, to make ourselves calmer and happier.
Research also shows that having people in our lives, a sense of purpose and meaning, feeling that we are part of something that is larger than ourselves, and doing things for others can increase our feelings of happiness. It is NOT things that make us happy but rather feeling connected and that we matter. Our involvement in this church community: volunteering, helping greet people or usher, joining a committee, joining a small group ministry, helping cook for and clean up at the auction, working with the children, all can make us happier and will benefit our community. Working together for justice whether at Beardsley or on climate change or gun control or the Rainbow task force’s reimaging project can help us feel connected and more at peace. Being active, exercising, getting out is a sure antidote to depression and may be the first steps to being calmer and happier.
Wendell Barry suggests in another poem, “Find joy-despite the facts.” Gratitude plays such a major role in our ability to deal with anxieties. When I am truly out of sorts, I take out colored pens and draw all the things I am grateful for in bright colors. When I am surrounded by visual images of all that is good in my life, despite my current concerns, I return to feeling how blessed I am by the life I have.
This summer, I turned 60….I remember doing a sermon here in 1994 about turning 40! I admit that I have had some trouble turning 60. I feel like I have entered my third and last act, and I must say that I really enjoyed the middle act of creating my career and our family. I had a glorious 60th birthday celebration in Mexico which included my dear friend and your former associate minister Barbara Fast leading the most extraordinary croning ceremony for me and 9 of my friends – welcoming me into this new time of life. And Ralph gave me the loveliest party for family and local friends. But, still I have struggled with a feeling that the best part of my life could be behind me, and that the issues of aging may be very difficult.
And then I remembered the early Bible story of Abram and Sarai, who were called by God to leave their home and begin a new journey when Abram was 75. God said, “Go forth from your land…to the land that I will show you, to a place you do not know, on your journey I will bless you, and you shall be a blessing.” And I realized I have no more idea what the next third of my life will bring than I knew what would happen between 30 and 60. At 30, I could not have imagined being the mother of two children, being married for 32 years, becoming a minister, of having had two successful careers, even of being a Unitarian Universalist. I thought about how in the Biblical story when Abram and Sarai reach Canaan, they are given new names: Abraham and Sarah. I started to think about how in this next act I will have new names too: my daughter’s new husband and I have decided to call each other Bonus Mom and Bonus Son rather than mother in law with its negative connotations; I like being Ben’s Bonus Mom. I hope to have the name “grandma” sometime in the next five years. In two years, I hope I will finish my doctoral program and I can be called Rev. Dr. Haffner (sounds nice, yes?) And I am increasingly think that I have a next act in the next few years of serving a congregation as a pastor, when it is time for me to leave the Religious Institute as its founder and pass it on to a new generation. Looking ahead to new roles, new experiences, new adventures is helping me not worry about what I know will surely be the struggles of aging and loss. I was aware this weekend in counseling a young stressed out new mother, struggling to achieve balance between motherhood, being a wife, and a business executive, how every age has its challenges and struggles.
I’ve realized that a lot of the lessons I could have used to hear at 30 are good reminders for myself again as I enter this new act: your best days may be ahead of you. Listen to what God or the universe is calling you to do next. Be gentle with yourself. Show yourself the compassion you show others. Take risks to create the best life possible. Travel. Keep making friends. Be a good friends. Exercise. Keep learning new things. Keep trying new things. Be open to surprises. Tell people you love them. All the time. Change what isn’t working. Exercise. Eat well. Drink good wine. Do yoga. Find time for silence. Seek people who will challenge you. Reach out to others when you don’t know what to do. Therapy is never a bad idea. Find work and causes that you believe in. Say yes to every rite of passage, wedding, baby naming, and funeral. Celebrate life with others. Ask questions. Listen more, speak less. Say thank you-a lot. To others, to God. Be kind, to others, to yourself. Know everyone else is struggling too. No one has it all figured out. Meditate. Pray. Learn to be happy on your own. Do your 95% best. The other 5% isn’t worth it. You create your own life. Make it worthwhile. Years go fast. Don’t wish even a day away. Be present. It was a good list to give to my 30 year old struggling friend; it’s a good reminder again at 60.
Let me return to the Bible. At the end of Moses’ life and time in the wilderness, he tells his followers that he will not be coming with them to the Promised Land. He says to them, “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe…I have set before you life or death, blessings, and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30: 14, 19) Moses says the way to a good and just life is not in heaven, it’s not beyond the seas, and it’s not beyond our strength or our reach. It is very near to us – in our mouths and in our hearts for our own observance. It reminds us we have everything we need. As Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote, our ultimate human freedoms is to choose ones attitude in any given circumstance.”
Every day is a choice between blessings and curses. We can choose to embrace or to dread the day. We can choose to give in to our worries and our fears or we can go out into our world and enjoy our life anyway. We can find joy, despite our facts. Choose life is also a reminder that our time, our lives are precious, and they can be wasted or savored. There is no one here today who hasn’t known despair, questions, or struggles. Deuteronomy says, “Choose life so that you…may live. Make choices that are life enhancing, which will feed you, that will enrich you, rather than the one that is harmful to yourself or others. If you need help, ask for it. Seek it. Determine what you need to move forward. Make an appointment with a counselor or a doctor. Seek out a pastoral care provider. Volunteer. Get involved. Exercise. Do something fun. Learn to meditate. Breathe. And then breathe again. Do a kind deed, a mitzvah for someone else. Together, may we choose and enrich our lives.