Sweet Sorrow

A farewell sermon to the wonderful Unitarian Universalists of Gainesville, Florida
Delivered 2013 June 30

"In Blackwater Woods"
Mary Oliver
Look, the trees are turning their own bodies into pillars of light,
are giving off the rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment,
the long tapers of cattails are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders of the ponds, and every pond,
no matter what its name is, is nameless now.
Every year everything I have ever learned in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires and the black river of loss
whose other side is salvation,
whose meaning none of us will ever know.
To live in this world you must be able
to do three things: to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Love and letting go are opposite sides of the same coin.

Shakespeare’s best known, best loved scene is Act 2, scene 2 of "Romeo and Juliet" – the balcony scene. The lovers discover each other, reveal themselves, make known their love.
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet the sun
Arise fair sun and kill the envious moon...”
And so on. The two exchange vows of love; promise to meet “on the morrow.” As they prepare to separate, Juliet says, “parting is such sweet sorrow.” The sorrow is that they are separating. The sweet is that they have found love with each other.

From the very beginning of their relationship, the play shows us, they are separating even as they come together. Loving what is mortal, holding it against their bones knowing their lives depend upon it, and letting it go. Their time runs out because they have so filled it.

Time always runs out. That’s what time does. The sweetness of this moment and also its sorrow is the love we make of fleeting lives. Right where we are.

There were sermons that I thought I would preach to you that somehow kept getting pushed back. Now time runs out.

One of them would have been called: “Kick the Bucket List.” (CLICK HERE)

Love opens the door of awe and wonder – and that, too, is always right here. Another sermon that I meant to give one day would have been on the Biblical book of Job. (CLICK HERE)

Let the love we share be always with us – and so it is, truly. And that leads to the third sermon idea I have had in the back of my mind for years: Prayer. (CLICK HERE)

So there you have three sermon abstracts. But they are one sermon, after all, about how good this life is, how wonderful right here. Look, and see. Time runs out, and that sorrow is also the sweetness -- for it has been the greatest privilege of my life to have served as your minister for seven years.

I believe that this Fellowship is now poised to become more vibrant, engaged and committed – and larger – than it has ever been. It falls now to my colleagues – an interim minister, Rev. Benjamin Maucere – and then your next settled minister -- to minister this Fellowship through that next stage. I believe that is best. Even so, I grieve the loss of this ministry that has sustained and nourished me these seven years.

You welcomed LoraKim and me into your lives, supported us in times of need, celebrated with us, became a part of our lives. We have been blessed to belong among you. I have loved you and love you still, holding you against my bones knowing my life depends on it, and have felt your love – when you meant to be showing it, and when you didn’t.

Parting is such sweet sorrow. You taught me most of what I now know about how to be a minister. I am proud and joyful for what we have accomplished together. I think I have sometimes been a slow learner, yet with you I learned so much. The Unitarian Universalists of White Plains, New York are getting a very different minister from the one who first stood at this pulpit a septade ago – and that is also both a sweetness and a sorrow. Thank you, thank you. How wonderful indeed it is and has been, right here.

Help: you have been.

Thanks: you have my fullest measure of.

Wow: you are so awesome and powerful.

The sweetness of this moment and also its sorrow is the love we make of fleeting lives.
“Look, the trees are turning their own bodies into pillars of light,
are giving off the rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment,…
To live in this world you must be able
to do three things: to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
And so it is.


Becoming Radically Inclusive

“We’re not doing that now.”
What a beautiful, skillful, parental line that is. The child wants to run jump in the mud puddle, or stop at the ice cream store, or climb on you to play the tickle game, and it’s just not the time for it.
“We’re not doing that now.”
It’s not saying the child’s desires are wrong. No judgment about right or wrong is indicated. The word “should” is not used. There’s no shaming, blaming, scolding, or impatience. Implicitly, the activity the child wants can be engaged in at some other time. Just not now.
“We’re not doing that now.”
Some other time.

A few years ago, it was the evening of the third day of a week-long Zen retreat. I had spent the day outwardly following the prescribed discipline which included 15 25-minute sits interspersed with shorter periods of walking meditation, or a meal, and, in the afternoon, a nap break. Inwardly, however, I was allowing myself to be carried away on a vivid and lurid fantasy. At the end of the day, I had a brief one-on-one interview with one of the teachers. I confessed that I had spent the day in mental fantasy. I was sure that he wasn’t going to counsel repression. The practice is about awareness and acceptance of all of ourselves, whatever we find when we look inside, whatever comes up. So if fantasy is what comes up, just be aware of that and follow it, right?

Not quite.

Notice its beginning. Bring awareness to the emergence of fantasy. Often, in the glare of attention, it will simply fade. If it doesn’t, the teacher said, you tell yourself:
“We’re not doing that now.”

The inner child needs not merely to be gotten in touch with. Our inner child needs our inner parent. Every impulse comes from a legitimate and worthy place, and even if we might want to do some work on what we do with that impulse, repression and denial are not the best way to go. When I talked about the seven deadly sins – gluttony, sloth, envy, anger, greed, lust, and pride – I wanted to say that each one of those is a virtue as well as a vice, each one blesses us even if sometimes it also curses us. Each one comes from a legitimate and worthy place, and our task is to manage with greater skill and greater intentionality, to be neither owned by the impulse, overindulging it, nor repressing and denying that impulse. The history of attempts to expunge what we don’t like about ourselves is not a happy history.

The more rewarding spiritual work is befriending even the parts of ourselves we don’t like. Move from self-blame to self-acceptance. Yet self-acceptance doesn’t mean indulgence of that self’s every whim. The path of spiritual work is a path of self-acceptance, yet also increased intentionality. Who you are and who you want to be are brought into a dialog so that they can come closer together – each modifying the other. Who you want to be is changed by a deeper awareness of who you are.

You’re not on this planet to live up to some universal ideal. You’re here to manifest the unique package of gifts and shadows that is you. At the same time, the question, "Is this what we want to be doing now?" is a good one. Your impulse is legitimate. It’s not wrong. But is this the time and place to indulge it? Or, are we not doing that now?

Thus the spiritual path is one of gradually bringing self-acceptance and intentionality together. Radical inclusivity begins at home. It begins by including all of the different parts of the self, affirming the legitimacy of everything that’s there – including our own inhospitable parts. What makes us tend to exclude others from our fullest welcome into our lives, we have to ask, where does that come from? What’s the need that exclusion – the withholding of attention, understanding, and empathy – serves?

There’s a reason that radical inclusivity is difficult. Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist whose 2000 book, Bowling Alone, charted the decline in voluntary groups and the growing isolation of Americans, has done some newer research on the American response to diversity. What he has found is that
“other things being equal, more diversity in a community is associated with less trust both between and within ethnic groups.”
Putnam describes people of all races, sex, socioeconomic statuses, and ages as ‘hunkering down,’ avoiding engagement with their local community—both among different ethnic groups and within their own ethnic group. The higher the diversity – the more people are near people unlike themselves, the more ‘hunkering down.’ The increasing isolation that Putnam had described in Bowling Alone isn’t simply the product of a media that makes us fearful – too scared to go out -- or of technology that makes it easier to be entertained by ourselves, alone in our homes in front of the screen of a TV, computer, smart phone, iPad, or video game console. A substantial factor in our growing isolation is that growing diversity in our cities and neighborhoods makes us less comfortable interacting with our neighbors.

The more we “hunker down,” the lower our confidence in local government, local leaders and the local news media; the lower our confidence in our ability to influence local government. Consequently, even though interest and knowledge about politics is actually going up, and participation in protest marches and social reform groups is up, voter registration is down. We’ve got higher political advocacy, but lower expectations that it will bring about a desirable result. We have less expectation that others will cooperate to solve dilemmas of collective action. We don’t feel we can count on our neighbors to, for instance, voluntarily conserve water in these times of growing shortage. Americans are responding to increased diversity by becoming less likely to work on a community project, less likely to give to charity, or to volunteer. We have fewer close friends and confidants, spend more time watching television, become more likely to agree that "television is my most important form of entertainment," and have less happiness and perceive ourselves to have lower quality of life. In the face of diversity, Putnam ruefully concluded, “most of us retreat.”

Hunkering down makes us less likely to join in congregational life, so merely by attending a faith institution you are exerting some resistance to the recent unhappy trends toward isolation and social distrust. At the same time, congregational life itself manifests a form of hunkering down, or bunkering in.

I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist all my life, and have had leadership in our congregations for almost 30 years. It was back in 1984 that the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waco, Texas elected me to be that congregation’s president. Through the decades, I have been with many, many groups of Unitarian Universalists – including many here – in which the question was asked what drew us to Unitarian Universalism. We’ll go around the room and invite everyone in the group to take a turn responding. In group after group, there are two basic answers that predominate. They might seem to contradict. The number one answer is some variation of:
“At last, hallelujah, I found a place where people think like me.”
A number us love this place because, we report, we can be ourselves here.We can be understood by people who share our assumptions, our values – and our prejudices.

The number two answer is the opposite:
“I love how different people are here. I love the diversity I find – everybody’s got different ideas. It’s very stimulating.”
The fact is we do have a fair degree of theological diversity: we have Christians, Buddhists, humanists, pagans.Some of us are vehemently agnostic – finding it particularly important to emphasize not knowing – and just about all of us are at least nominally agnostic just in the sense that we’re polite enough not to claim that we’re certain we’re right – even if secretly we do feel certain. Some of us put the emphasis on what they do believe, and some put the emphasis on what they don’t. We are a diverse lot, theologically.

We are not such a diverse lot ethnically, or in terms of socio-economic class. We are not such a diverse lot politically. And even theologically, people with conservative forms of their religion are probably not going to be comfortable here.

We do, in many ways, think a lot a like, and the diversity we appreciate is diversity of intellectual ideas within a context of a largely shared culture that values intellectual ideas. This makes us not terribly inclusive.

We say everyone is welcome here. And we do mean it. At the same time, what’s most often going on is that people that are likely to make us uncomfortable themselves feel uncomfortable here and don’t come, or don’t come back.

We don’t have to say anyone is unwelcome because we can pretty much count on it that the people who stay will be basically like us. And I need to say to you: that’s not wrong. There’s a legitimate place for how good it feels to be among your people, to be with the people who think like you, people among whom you can relax and be yourself, and don’t have to be afraid you’ll say the wrong thing.

Radical inclusivity begins at home and begins with self-acceptance. So let us accept that we do have that in us that likes our club as a club.

At the same time, there’s a time for that inner parental voice that notices the impulse to hunker down, bunker in, talk only to the people that look like us and agree with our prejudices, and say:
"We’re not doing that now."
We are called to connect with people who are very other. We want to. Mostly, we want them to be more like us, so that we can connect with them easily. That ain’t gonna happen. It’s up to us to stretch. Here are some examples of cases that have challenged the inclusivity of Unitarian Universalist congregations:
  • A young woman, with an infant in her arms. When the baby starts to whimper during the service, she begins breastfeeding;
  • A Native American with long dark hair comes in;
  • A man from a Pentacostal background waves his hands in the air during the singing of “Spirit of Life”;
  • A beautifully bedecked woman in a flowered print dress, with matching high heels and purse. She is 6-foot-four, and clearly transgender;
  • A person who speaks out of turn and can’t follow the hymns. He seems to be mentally ill
  • A well-dressed opposite-sex couple: the man has an American flag in the lapel of his suit, and they have their Bibles with them;
  • A homeless man who hasn’t bathed in a week;
  • A couple whose smiles reveal that neither of them have enjoyed the benefits of a lifetime of reasonable dental care;
  • A woman with a guide dog;
  • A man who mentions during the social hour that he has just been released from prison – where he was serving time on a conviction for child pornography;
  • Someone else during the social hour who mentions the color of your aura;
  • A service man back from Iraq, in uniform, visiting with his aunt and uncle;
  • A 21-year-old who just graduated from a West coast college and has moved here to find his first job. He knows no one in town, and he is African American
  • A woman whose skin tone is consistent with being middle-eastern and who is wearing head covering we recognize as the Muslim Hijab.
  • A group of Latino youth who speak among themselves in Spanish.
  • A forty-year old man who comes in holding hands with a woman – and his other hand is holding hands with another woman.
One or two cases like that each week, and most of us are OK. They might come a few times, but they probably don’t stick around. What if they did? What if they stayed and weren’t going anywhere and half the people here, week after week, for a couple years fit one or more of those descriptions? This place wouldn’t be your comfortable social club of like-minded friends anymore. What then? Would you then become the one who, not comfortable, stopped coming?

You’ll notice that one description I did not include on that list is:
  • A man walking toward the front door carrying automatic weapons.
Inclusivity, no matter how radical, never means we forget that sometimes safety is the first priority. I do want to celebrate the progress we have made toward inclusivity. Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists have been wrestling with issues of inclusion and exclusion for as long as their have been Unitarians, Universalists, or Unitarian Universalists. Not every chapter in that history is a glorious story of righteous leadership at the forefront of social movements for greater inclusion, but we do have some progress worth celebrating. You’ll notice that another description I did not include among that OK-as-long-as-there-aren’t-too-many-of-“them” list is:
  • A same-sex couple.
That’s because we’re pretty accepting of same-sex couples. One of our more prominent ministers now, Rev. Gail Geisenhainer, tells the story of the first time she visited a Unitarian Universalist congregation – back in the mid-1980s. She did not expect that, as an out lesbian, she would be accepted.
“I was thirty-eight years old, living in Maine, driving a snowplow for a living and feeling very sorry for myself when a friend invited me to his church. He said it was different. I rudely refused. I cursed his church. 'All blank-ing churches are the same,' I informed him. 'They say they’re open—but they don’t want queer folk. To heck with church!'
My friend persisted. He knew his church was different. He told me his church cared about people, embraced diverse families, and worked to make a better world. He assured me I could come and not have to hide any aspects of myself. So I went. And I dressed sooooo . . . carefully for my first Sunday visit. I spiked my short hair straight up into the air.I dug out my heaviest, oldest work boots, the ones with the chainsaw cut that exposed the steel toe.I got my torn blue jeans and my leather jacket.There would not be a shred of ambiguity this Sunday morning.They would embrace me in my full Amazon glory, or they could fry ice.I carefully arranged my outfit so it would highlight the rock-hard chip I carried on my shoulder. I bundled up every shred of pain and hurt and betrayal I had harbored from every other religious experience in my life, and I lumbered into that tiny meeting house on the coast of Maine. I expected the gray-haired ladies in the foyer to step back in fear.That would have been familiar.Instead, they stepped forward, offered me a bulletin, and a newsletter, and invited me to stay for coffee. It was so . . . odd! They never even flinched! They called me 'dear.' 'Stay for coffee, dear.' I stayed for coffee. I stayed for Unitarian Universalism. Over time, the good folks of that church loved up the scattered parts of me and guided me from shattered to whole; from outcast to beloved among many. And those folks listened to me.” (UUWORLD ARTICLE HERE)
Sometimes I’m so proud of us.

At the same time, our own wholeness and healing calls us toward a greater skill in welcoming the stranger, greater adeptness at making a greater variety of persons and personalities feel included and welcome. Our connectedness requires attention to their connectedness among us. The challenge will not go away. The Census Bureau reported in 2013 June that for the first time ever, America’s racial and ethnic minorities now make up half of the under-five age group.

Singing a verse of "Spirit of Life" in Spanish is just the babiest of next steps toward a future of healing and connection and inclusion. Our Social Justice team aimed for some more significant steps this year. They announced last August their theme for the year: "Beyond the Welcoming Congregation: Toward Radical Inclusivity." “Welcoming Congregation” refers to a specific program of investigating and learning about LGBT issues. Through classes and group discussion and following a UUA curriculum about how to be better welcoming to the LGBT community, this congregation received the official designation “welcoming congregation” almost 20 years, in 1994. We were the first congregation in Florida to earn that designation. We are now called to go beyond the official Welcoming Congregation status to groups beyond the LGBT community, as well continuing our progress in understanding and compassion for LGBT. Each topic this last year has included a component of learning, of advocating, and of connecting. In addition to LGBT, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity, we also this year addressed:
  • Poverty, Racism and Cultural Identity;
  • Multi-Species and Environment; and 
  • Disabilitites.
Perhaps – I hope so – as a congregation we became a little more knowledgeable and understanding of all kinds of differences, and from this have a more inclusive outlook in the congregation and in our daily lives.

Robert Putnam’s work on the effect of diversity reaches an optimistic conclusion. In the short term, he says, there is this hunker down reaction. In the long run, however, successful immigrant societies overcome fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities.

We have learned how to be with different people without making them like us, without giving up what we are -- not without occasional discomforts, but with the confidence that together there’s no discomfort we can’t get through. Then we can say:
"Connecting only with the people who look, act, and think like us? We’re not doing that now.”