Begin Again (9/29/2019)

Our administrative office is a place of wonder, discovery, and spiritual growth. Really. The other day, our beloved and highly valued congregational Treasurer, Olivia, was opening the mail. She wondered out loud if anyone wanted to respond to our insurance company about their offer for a free wall calendar that includes safety tips for religious communities and contact information for the insurance company. I was so excited! This was just the letter I had been waiting to receive! 

If you’ve been in my office, you’ve seen how marked up last year’s calendar is. Not only do I write on it the dates of special services and congregational events, it’s the first place I look when I’m so immersed in planning ahead that I need to be reminded what day it is today. Olivia very kindly wrote our customer number down for me so that I could go on the website to request our copy of the calendar. It’s supposed to arrive in November. I can’t wait!

There is nothing like spreading out a fresh calendar, full of open spaces, the potential energy of days and weeks and months stretching before you. Anything is possible. There is value in spontaneity, and I admire people who can create things in the moment, but the gifts that the Divine has bestowed upon me work best when I plan ahead. I can adapt a plan when needed — I’d like to think I can be flexible — but I prefer to start with at least some goals. Hence, the golden opportunity of a new calendar: an entire year, waiting to be framed with hopes and dreams!

Of course, knowing that not everything goes according to plan, the safety tips and phone numbers for the insurance company are nice to have, too. 

My excitement about turning over a new page in the calendar is just one of the reasons I find it deeply meaningful to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. My interfaith family is delightfully complex in spiritual expression, so I hope it’s not too confusing that I spoke about my personal earth-centered practice last week, and this week I’m telling you that I’ll be out of the office for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Some of the families in this congregation are interfaith Jewish and UU like mine, but even for those who are not, there is wisdom we can learn from the Jewish New Year that fits in with Unitarian Universalist faith and practice. 

In particular, I want to talk about starting over. For ourselves, that means coming to terms with our mistakes and vulnerabilities, and setting intentions for the kind of people we want to be and the kind of choices we want to make in the coming year. In our relationships together, that might mean making amends or letting go of grudges so that we can start fresh. Turning the page doesn’t mean forgetting the chapters that came before, but it can mean a new perspective and a new direction. In our Soul Matters themes of the month, September is a month of expectation; this week is a good time to begin again, to reset our expectations of ourselves and the year ahead.

A bit of context might help. On the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashana is the new year holiday. The shofar is blown to wake us up, to bring us into the present moment where we can do the work of turning toward life in the new year. Ten days later, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the last day before the books are closed on the previous year, a last push to take responsibility for our mistakes. I’ll talk about that next week. There is space between them to look back, like when the congregation ends our year of accounting on June 30 but we have a little time before we can give a comprehensive financial report on the year that has just ended. We need that time in between to assess and to make corrections. While Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are two separate holidays, and it’s a great opportunity to be able to talk about them separately, they are related to each other. 

As Unitarian Universalists, we strive to practice responsibility. Our UU Principles speak of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Our behavior should reflect the inherent worth and dignity of all those who are affected by our actions, including ourselves. We know that we are part of an interdependent web of existence, and that our choices have far-reaching consequences on others, and that the choices of others far away have an impact on us. Whether we reflect on this at Rosh Hashana or at another time of year, it makes sense to take regular stock of how we are doing with being in community. It makes sense to lower our defenses long enough to honestly assess the places where we can do better, to repair our relationships where we have done harm, and to set some intentions for living out our values more deeply than we have before. This can include setting intentions that will allow us to have greater access to joy, to community, and to spiritual growth; turning toward life in the new year has hopeful and positive aspects. 

Last week, we talked about your congregational covenant of right relations, including the part that says:

Knowing we will at times fall short of these ideals, we intend to use this covenant as our guide for the behavior we expect of ourselves and others as we live and work in community.

This understanding of human fallibility is built into the High Holidays, and is definitely built into a long-lasting UU covenant. None of us are perfect, yet we are capable of being held responsible. Covenants give us a path for acknowledging harm, making amends, and returning to community. A regular, perhaps annual, practice of beginning again reminds us of the potential for taking responsibility and reconciling in right relationship. 

Beginning again does not mean forgetting everything we have learned up until this point. Rather, it means building on what we’ve learned, yet opening our senses to what there is, truly in this moment, rather than being governed by what we perceived in the past. There is a lot of brokenness in the world, brokenness between people, brokenness in our own hearts. That is true. And it is also true that the world, our relationships, and our hearts are capable of healing. We are alive, and so the potential for change and growth lives within us and between us and beyond us. 

The opportunity to begin again, to fill in the pages of the calendar of the year to come with positive intentions, is powerful. Recognizing our mistakes, our vulnerabilities, and our shortcomings can be scary. We might fear that making mistakes means being a mistake, but that is just not so. Being in a community that engages in introspection together reminds us that we are all human, and we can work on doing better. Coming to terms with our flaws means we have a chance to learn a new way, we don’t have to dwell there, we don’t have to create an identity out of our mistakes. But we do have to learn from them, and make repairs when we can. 

Another advantage to doing this spiritual work in community is that we have opportunities to forgive each other. Sometimes the opportunity to let go is not presented with a perfect apology. Sometimes the opportunity comes when we realize that carrying a grudge is more exhausting than it’s worth. If we open up our hearts, take an assessment of where we are and what our intentions are for the year to come, it might be possible to keep the learning and the wisdom gained from a painful experience while letting go of the resentment. It might not be possible yet. Letting go of grudges is not easy. Nevertheless, entering the new year with fewer or smaller chips on our shoulders might free us up to pursue our positive intentions with more strength than we had before. 

There’s a parable in Jewish circles that originates with the Maggid of Dubno. A Maggid is like a spiritual storyteller, sometimes a rabbi but not necessarily, someone who might be a wise fool or a musician or simply a conveyer of wisdom and cultural knowledge. The Maggid of Dubno, Rabbi Jacob Kranz, told of a fortune that was lost and found between the generations. This version comes by way of Rabbi Daniel Brenner

Once there was a wealthy man who wanted to protect his fortune so he hid his wealth in different places in his house. He died before telling his son where he had hidden the money. After the father’s death, the son lived in the home but he had no work and he had little to eat. He grew increasingly desperate and one day was counting out his last few silver coins when one of the coins dropped, and he crawled on the floor to find it. He searched all over but he couldn’t find his coin. In desperation he pulled up the floorboards and found one of the sacks of golden coins his father had hidden. He opened the sack and was amazed at his fortune. He searched all through the house and found more and more sacks of gold but he never found his original, lost silver coin.

Because it’s a parable, there is lots of room for interpretation in the Maggid’s story. One way of interpreting the story is that this world is full of surprising treasures. Another thing to notice about the story is that the silver coin that was lost remained lost. Sometimes we have to let go of something to find the treasures that will lead us in a new direction. It may be the case that letting go, starting over, means losing something we value: an old identity, a sense of urgency that kept us going when we didn’t think we could, a connection with someone who is gone. The grief of losing that is real. And sometimes what we find instead is a better fit for the future. 

Something I notice about this parable is how the low point in the story could have been made easier if the two characters had talked to one another, and had not put it off for another time. If there is an opportunity for healing, take it. If there is an opportunity to be in community, to reflect and be vulnerable with a trusted spiritual companion, take it. If there is an opportunity to learn from the past while being clear about what is needed for the future, take it. The treasures we have are made evident when we engage in right relationship. The gifts we need for the time ahead might involve letting go of something else we thought we needed in the past. 

The start of a new year is a good time to assess who we are and where we are. It’s a good time to notice the ways we have healed over the last year, the ways we have yet to grow, and the repairs that are ready to be made. If you are like me, a little too giddy with the excitement of a new calendar, the start of a new year is a good time to remember what day it is today, to be present to things as they are and to the people around us and the condition of our relationships. 

May the coming year be nourishing with the satisfaction of learning and growing from our mistakes. May the coming year be illuminated with the beacon of our positive intentions. May the coming year be uplifted with the unburdening of resentments that no longer serve us. May the coming year be warm with the connections of our loved ones and spiritual companions, communicating openly about what’s most important. May new beginnings bring a sweet new year. 

So be it. Blessed be. Amen.