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As we enter into this Advent season I am acutely aware that December can be a very dark time for some. Those of us in the so-called helping professions know that the Holidays, coupled with this present darkness can lead to depression, anxiety and suicide ideation. It is a time when we are very careful to follow up with people we have not seen for some time.
As Andrew Solomon put it this way in his groundbreaking book on depression The Noontime Demon,
“I was overpowered by being in the world, by other people and their lives I couldn’t lead, their jobs I couldn’t do – overpowered even by jobs I would never want or need to do. It’s often like a grey veil that has been pulled over the world.”
In my erstwhile 40’s I was engaged with a challenging ministry, building a congregation, raising a family, working on my relationship and 60 pounds overweight. I was smoking and drinking and in and out of the doctor every other week. Suddenly in December I couldn’t get out of bed, well at least not easily. I willed myself to work, drive the kids to school and make conversation but all I really wanted to do was go back to bed. The world was reduced to black and white.
Francis insisted I get help. I finally went to see a therapist who, along with my beloved, probably saved my life. After the first session he put me on an anti-depressant despite my pseudo macho attitude that I didn’t need medication. Larry laughed and said “John, you are already on all kinds of medication, tobacco, alcohol and food to name a few. Let’s try one that might actually help.”
As Christmas gave way to the New Year, I felt marginally better. I was seeing Larry once a week. He would also ask how I was seeing the world. “Not much different” was my usual reply. One day though, bright January day, I opened my eyes in the morning and started laughing. Francis asked what was up. “Colors” I said, “I see colors! They are wonderful!”
The colors were always there of course, it’s just that my brain and spirit had failed to see them. It was as if I had awakened in wonder to the world for the first time. Not in that terrifying way a baby comes out into the light but something far more subtle but all the more beautiful. Morning had truly broken.
Wonder is the space in our lives that we give to something far beyond ourselves. The Buddhists have a name for this stage of enlightenment: no self. When we see in the smallest piece of the world, its beauty and yes, even its struggle. And yet in that world lies another reality, the reality of wonder is that you see this beyond you. When the Zen master asks what do we see in the mirror? The correct answer is no face, no glass, no mirror, just now.
I have touched this wonderment at the most unlikely times, on a crowded city street watching someone help a homeless man off the pavement, in the crashing surf on the Sound, when we sing and transcend the particulars of our lives and feel the being as One. At our staff meeting on Wednesday Jim Francek offered this quote from Emerson “In the woods too, one casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child.“
Waking up to wonder happens when we least expect it. Sometimes it comes quickly. Sometimes it dawns more slowly, almost imperceptibly in our lives. And often, what I have found is that wonderment breaks through to us when we are most lost. Breakdown in order to breakthrough am I right?
We are faced with so much heartache now, Ukraine, Black and Brown Lives, Queer Lives being threatened, political dystopia, and the threat of either nuclear annellation or climate extinction whichever comes first. It’s all just too much. We are all doing the best we can. So, do this with me. Close your eyes for a moment. Place your hands in your lap. And breathe deeply. Hold that breath as oxygen exchange with carbon dioxide, the very wonder of life, and now breathe out. Exhale a few seconds more than you inhaled. Let’s do it again. Breathe in, hold it one two, and breath out, three, four, five, six. Rest with your eyes closed just for a few more moments. Imagine that you are safe, well fed, cared for. Imagine you are loved, because you are. Every one of us here is loved. Now imagine you are love. You are the love of one another, you are the love of this community, you are the love of light. And now open your eyes slowly, look up and out. See the light of this building, this sanctuary which even on a cloudy day fill us.
This my beloveds, this is wonder, feeling and seeing the world as something new and this is our awakening, one of thousands that invades our lives all the time beyond the fear and anger. Remember what master Yoda said “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” No one really understands the way of the heart, which is why it is a wonder to begin with.
Waking to wonder involves a letting go of what we think we know and sometimes of what we know we know. Waking to wonder especially in a season filled with traditions and expectations, is especially poignant. We have always decorated our house for Christmas. This year we chose not to. Too busy perhaps. But in its absence, I now see other decorations more genuinely. Not as a competition with ours but a gift of light into a dark world. Can you hear me? Kids see this already. What would it take for us to see it as well? What if every house you see decorated with lights was a gift to the world?
Move beyond your assumptions, remain truly curious and the world becomes wonder-filled. Don Miquel Ruiz put it this way in his classic The Four Agreements:
“We make the assumption that everyone sees life the way we do. We assume that others think the way we think, feel the way we feel, judge the way we judge, and abuse the way we abuse. This is the biggest assumption that humans make. And this is why we have a fear of being ourselves around others. Because we think everyone else will judge us, victimize us, abuse us, and blame us as we do ourselves. So even before others have a chance to reject us, we have already rejected ourselves. That is the way the human mind works…others tell us something, we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate. Even if we hear something and we don’t understand, we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions. We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.”
As we approach Christmas, what would happen if we tried to see the world with the eyes of a child? What would happen if we remained curious about what someone else is saying rather than preparing a response that has only to do with us? What if someone said something even a bit critical and you said, “Tell me more”? What if the world was different from the way you are and only awaits your eyes to see the world in a new way?
The brilliant Irish poet John O’Donohue wrote:
“We live between the act of awakening and the act of surrender. Each morning we awaken to the light and the invitation to a new day in the world of time; each night we surrender to the dark to be taken to play in the world of dreams where time is no more. At birth we were awakened and emerged to become visible in the world. At death we will surrender again to the dark to become invisible. Awakening and surrender: they frame each day and each life; between them the journey where anything can happen, the beauty and the frailty.” (To Bless the Space Between Us)
What I am saying is this: In the grand scheme of things, we can’t control most of what happens to us, and the small part we can control often makes even more anxious than we started. Conflict, anxiety, betrayal and hurt are all part of living. We awaken to them every day, right? But we have within all of us individually and collectively as a congregation, the power to wonder about what is really happening with the ones we meet. In a world that seems so fractured, it is easy to judge the actions of others from the frame of our own reference. Our rush to judgement does not serve us well. It’s much more difficult to step back and ask why? Why did that happen? Why did he say that? Why did she do that? When we don’t have enough information, we fill in the blanks with what we assume. However, the real superpower we all have is to ask why, what, how and when. To assume that another is acting with malice is to assume the worst. In so many instances the worst was never their intention. Seek and ye shall find, ask and ye shall understand. In other words, awaken to the wonder of it all.
I have been immersed in the study of Zen Buddhism of late, Zazen, or sitting is a practice of emptying in order to see again for the first time. Early morning walks by the shore, and I see, birds, dogs, waves breaking across the sandbar. Free the mind, free the soul. Chuang Tzu said:
“The baby looks at things all day without winking; that is because his eyes are not focused on any particular object. He goes without knowing where he is going and stops without knowing what he is doing. He merges himself within the surroundings and moves along with it.” (The Analects)
So here is what a suggest as a spiritual practice this next week. Take time to walk around your neighborhood or town, or drive but walking is better at night and look at the lights, not with judgement but with wonder. See what you see. As T.S. Elliot said “We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”
This is how we might even consider our Ultimate Truth, God, Goddess or Force, something that is relational to how we see the world without all the judgement. Just as it is. Nothing more, nothing less.
After my struggle with depression those many years ago, I have been on a quest to heal what will always be at the heart of my Saturn soul, the veil of gray lifted from time to time. I was off medication for a great many years. And then in California I started developing serious migraine headaches. Those of you who suffer from these know how devasting they can be. I even had one during candidating Sunday here in May 2015, Randy Burnham used a pressure point in my hand to drive it back. I have learned that the headaches are part of a constellation of issues all of which I have been addressing. One change was to take an anti-depressant which I have been taking for years now. I can say my life is much better, my bouts of anxiety have lessened and I am in better health than I have been in years. And yet, the wonder and curiosity I have tried to embrace in my second half of life is never far from that darkness. All of us have seasons, all of us keep the demons at bay, or not. Wonder for me is directly connected to how much I am capable of love; love of my beloved, my family, life, fortune, and all of you.
As Forest Church the great UU minister and author of the last century wrote as he was dying,
“What I’m talking about here, is salvation. The Latin root, salve, means ‘health.’ The Teutonic cognates ‘health’ and ‘holy’ share the same root. Being agnostic about the afterlife, I look for salvation here – not to be saved from life, but to be saved by life, in life, for life.” (From Love and Death)
Ah, yes joy and woe are woven fine, and wonder may be the thinnest veil which keeps us saved in life, for life, and present now. Wonder, like love, has the thinnest of veils between what we revel in and what we fear. Be brave and love life, nonetheless. Better to have loved – and wondered – and lost than never to have loved at all. Right?
As Andrew Solomon said in The Noonday Demon: “Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.”
Wonder still my beloveds, wonder still, for there is, to quote the Lion King, “more to see than can ever be seen, and more to know than can ever be known” and that is precious salvation enough.
Go shining, always, Amen.