Not that long ago, we almost had real snow. The weather predictions were noncommittal. We worried about commuters, travelers, and public safety workers. Winter weather can be both beautiful and terrible. Just when I thought the snow was a complete hoax and I set out on a long drive, flurries twirled through the sky. We didn’t get more than a dusting of accumulation, but it was an exciting show. Melted water and frozen water were tumbling in tension on the unpredictable path toward spring. There may be other frozen skies this month, but warmer days are struggling into birth.
Unitarian Universalism has its own kind of wintry mix. Our history shows us to be both critical and optimistic. We work for justice and compassion with confidence in the possibility of progress. With gratitude, we enjoy the gifts of the interdependent web and the support of our community. We are also realistic as we learn more about the work yet to be done. Most of all, we are real people with joys and sorrows. Like everyone else, UUs have triumphs and disappointments, and we need our faith to comfort us, sustain us, and help us give voice to joy.
As we circle together to dance with this simultaneous awareness of what could be and what is, the terrible and the beautiful throughout time, we can find inspiration from all of the sources of our living tradition. Sacred text, the stories of prophetic people from history, and direct experience are just some of the strands of music that keep us moving.
In complicated times, I find encouragement in the 23rd Psalm. The translation I’ll draw from today is from the arrangement by Bobby McFerrin, found in our Singing the Journey hymnal. We’ll hear the choir sing it for the Anthem today. The 23rd Psalm describes the experience of a person who faces danger and opposition, yet also finds a sense of renewal, forward momentum, and balance through spirituality. In our own lives and in the example of UUs who have gone before us, we, too, can find this centered place of gratitude and growth.
Organizing in faithful communities can replenish the spirit; as the Psalmist says, “she restores my soul.” The Psalmist also says, “she leads me in the path of good things.” Let’s call that connection. Resting in the persistence of beauty and grace, gifts that reach us be means beyond our own strength, helps us to endure. That is the path of contemplation. The spiritual path gives us the courage to move forward when we are in despair or just caught in a routine. By knowing our mortal limits and using our gifts in the service of love, I believe that “goodness and kindness will follow” us all the days of our lives, and that we will “live in her house”—that is, the path of the Spirit of Life—for a very long time. We cope with the beautiful and the terrible when we replenish the spirit and dwell in goodness.
She Restores My Soul: Replenishing the Spirit in Community
In connection, “She restores my soul.” We have resources for both comfort and the strength to face challenges in our communities. Some people hold that the gathered community of faith is the Divine body. The Holy is tangible in the sense that helping hands and shoulders to cry on are among us, motivated by one spirit. Here in this congregation, some of us believe in God, some of us don’t, some leave the question unanswered.
What we do believe in is each other. When we are lost, when we are feeling overwhelmed by the effects of brokenness in the world, there is still hope being kept alive by the energy of human relationships. Together, we go looking for it, we shape that energy into beauty through art and music, we organize ourselves in such a way that hope and comfort and solace flow to the people who need it.
A little earlier, we heard about Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, one of our UU ancestors who organized and advocated for and wrote literature for justice and compassion. Her magazine writing earned her the title of the mother of African American journalism. She also published books of poetry, novels, and short stories, as well as writing for her popular lectures; her artistry with words brought people together.
Like many of us, Harper was multi religious. She had grown up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and continued to be involved with the AME church alongside her membership in the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. Mother Bethel Church in Philadelphia gave her a home base for volunteer work to relieve poverty, mentor young children, and prevent juvenile delinquency. First Unitarian gave her a home base to spread the word about her writing, lecturing, and organizing. According to her entry in the UU Dictionary of Biography:
“AME was the church she had been raised in. It was family and home to her, and she always remembered where she came from and what her people had been through …The Unitarians she knew could help to advance the causes she supported in places she could never go.”
Harper’s organizational ties throughout her city and her nation were impressive. As we heard earlier, she served in leadership for the Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the National Association of Colored Women, and she was a member of the Universal Peace Union. She helped bring people together in inspirational and practical ways, connecting for immediate relief of suffering as well as for long-term justice advocacy.
Harper’s life shows us multiple ways of restoring souls through connection, she had many gifts. Individually, maybe only one of the gifts she demonstrated will be similar to ours, but as a community, we have many paths to help people come together in resilience. When we make time for the arts in our own lives and encourage others to develop their talents, we are restoring souls. When we squarely acknowledge brokenness and introduce people to one another for the purposes of strength and healing, we are making repairs to the interdependent web.
One of the questions I get asked sometimes is whether I agree that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. If somebody asks me this privately, my answer doesn’t matter as much as listening to the pain that inspired the question. As a matter of public theology, I will say that I don’t think God sits around deciding how much suffering to deal out to individual people. I believe that the Divine weeps with us and holds us in love in our times of sorrow.
I think a great deal of evil and suffering in the world is caused by people who make bad choices in the midst of anger and fear, and that these human mistakes require a human response. Also, I think the scope of the question needs to be expanded. Individuals are, indeed, met with more pain than one person can handle. There is no shame in not being able to cope silently and alone with grief or trauma. And we shouldn’t have to. Together, neighbors, church members, movements, nations, and world communities have a greater capacity to bear and to transform suffering. That shared lifting takes willingness and cooperation and strategy.
She restores my soul. The Source of Love is present in communities that align with the forces that create and uphold life. Just and compassionate gatherings of people are embodiments of the Divine. May we create and expand the circles where spirits are replenished.
I Will Live in Her House: Dwelling in Goodness (Contemplation)
In his poem, “Let Me Die Laughing,” the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed writes:
We are all dying, our lives always moving toward completion.
We need to learn to live with death, and to understand that death is not the worst of all events.
(Excerpted from the anthology, Been in the Storm So Long, 1991, edited by Mark Morrison-Reed and Jacqui James)
Morrison-Reed’s poem suggests that joy takes into account the authenticity of grief. He says that embracing our mortal limits is an invitation to use the gifts that we have. Fear might keep us from being compassionate or make us want to distance ourselves from the fullness of suffering and ecstasy in the present moment. The fear that immobilizes is often generalized: the ambiguous what-ifs, the unknown reactions, the clock that may or may not run out. The love that frees is often specific. Morrison-Reed refers to savoring and appreciating, breathing deeply, and holding hands with one person.
For myself, when I feel overwhelmed by the sorrows of people I care about and a constant stream of negative news reports, re-focusing on specific people or positive events can help bring me back to my center. I go looking for the people who are making a difference. I write a note to a good friend. Reminders of good things are available to me.
The Psalmist writes, “Surely, surely goodness and kindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will live in Her house, forever.” Goodness and kindness may not be obvious in any one story, or even in the wall of stories that come across the nightly news. On the other hand, odds are good that, at any given moment, someone I know is perpetuating goodness. Carrying that knowledge in the pocket of my mind helps me to calm down and to spread kindness when I am able.
Knowing our mortal limits, gathering with others to nurture our gifts and to expand the reign of love, these are some of the ingredients for traveling alongside the Holy. May we live boldly, aware of the boundaries of this precious life. May we find assurance and peace in hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, and seeing the blessings directly in front of us.
Still Waters (Courage)
This morning’s reading by Howard Thurman (“The Growing Edge,” From Meditations of the Heart, part 2, meditation 24) reminded us that we and life itself are traveling along the growing edge. The growing edge is not a comfortable place to be. It is a place of unknowing, and maybe some growing pains. Yet this is where the mystery of transformation happens. Growing moves on in the roots when we can’t perceive it above the surface; connectedness and stillness are part of the equation. Drawing from all of those things together— connectedness, stillness, and the mystery of what is beyond our knowing—can bring us courage. Thurman writes:
“Such is the growing edge! It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash.”
Thurman exhorts us to have courage, because life is more persistent than we might believe. Growth continues whether we observe it or not. There is strength that we didn’t know we had, maybe strength that was not ours to begin with yet that can be loaned to us in difficult times.
I have wondered occasionally if there is more to the still waters in the 23rd Psalm than I had assumed at first glance. Still waters can be soothing, cooling, and nourishing. But I’m also wondering if the Divine leads us to still waters because these are the best places for going over. Rough rivers and turbulent lakes are not as safe for crossing, but still waters might be a sign that it is time to move through the mystery, to meet what is yet to come in the growing edge.
In stillness, unknowing, and the persistence of life, may we find courage.
Our Unitarian Universalist faith urges us to embrace both the goodness and the unfinished business of this world with honesty and passion. There is work to be done on behalf of justice and kindness. There is also beauty and joy. May our yearning for what could be thrive alongside our gratitude for what is.
May our faith bring us together with people who practice the collective restoration of souls. Let us develop our own community and join in common cause with others to promote hope and healing.
May our limits give us a reason to live in the moment. Notice goodness and kindness as it happens. Take an inventory of the beauty and blessings we experience in this very moment.
May our connections and contemplations, observed and not observed, lend us the strength to have courage.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen