How to Stay in Touch without Touching
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Sermon Part I
It is really great to see you and to have you all join in this Zoom online worship service (77 connections were logged in.) These past two weeks have been quite a year. It feels like I’ve compressed a lot into each day recently. I’ve had some significant swings in how I am doing from day to day, and it’s been hard to keep my bearings.
I’ve heard others expressing the same sort of thing. People are scared by this pandemic. For a while we did not have much information about it, and there was a range of conflicting narratives about what was going on. It’s been hard to know where to get trustworthy and credible information about how to respond.
Our Board and I kept checking in about what to do next, trying to discern a path that was not overreacting or underreacting to COVID-19 and the dangers it presents to us. It’s been exhausting just trying to figure it out.
But for our congregation and for many of you with your school and work situations, this past week has seen things come to some resolution – albeit temporary for some and still ambiguous for others – but most people now have chosen (or have had chosen for them) social distancing.
And then the power went out yesterday. I live up in the Chenango Bridge area. We had just packed the chest freezer with frozen food the day before. I was upstairs working on my sermon for our first fully online streaming worship service … and the power went out.
I decided it was a good time to go out for an errand. I drove down Upper Front Street with all the traffic lights dead and I was thinking … is this what’s next? Just when we figure out how to do online worship, I can’t get online anymore because the power is gone? Thankfully, the power came back on after a few hours.
So, here’s what that all boils down to. I’ve been scared. A lot of people have been feeling scared. The uncertainty, the panic-shopping, the inundation of new information, the alarm and panic reactions by some juxtaposed with dismissiveness and mockery by others … it’s all fear. You and I and most of the people we meet have some level of fear coursing through us these days.
So, here is what we’re going to do. We’re going to work on adjusting how we think about all this and how we behave around all this in an effort to ease the fear and build our resilience.
Think about it like this: we’ve just turned ourselves upside down as a country in an effort to slow the spread of this disease. We are practicing the social distancing not out of fear alone. Fear has leaked into it, sure. But that’s not the big player in this. It is our communal interconnectedness leading us as individuals to make personal sacrifices for the good of the vulnerable.
I was talking with Qrri, our Human Rights intern, earlier in the week and she described what we’ve been feeling like this: It’s like we’re all in an unfamiliar room together with our eyes closed and our task is to just move across the room. Are we headed in the right direction? What did we just bump into? Are we almost through the room or still in the middle somewhere? Can’t tell. Hard to know. Keep moving.
So, the uncertainty and the lack of information is unsettling. We don’t know what’s really going to happen next. There are some pretty good guesses or estimations for those who are able to tune in to that. But really, it’s like we making our way across an unfamiliar room with our eyes closed.
But does the feeling change if you imagine this scenario as something you are doing alone or with strangers vs. if you are doing this in a room filled with your friends, family, and fellow congregants? And, that by participating in this ‘close-your-eyes-and-cross-the-room’ game, you are also participating in a behavior that will save lives.
That changes how it feels. At least it does for me. We’re going to work on adjusting how we think about all this and how we behave around all this in an effort to ease the fear and build our resilience.
So, what helps? What’s keeping you grounded? I have found that being with others helps a great deal. And when we can’t actually be together, it is still worth in to be together online. We are not alone. It matters. Because we are all more connected than we usually recognize
I’ve asked our Worship Associate, Trebbe Johnson, to read the piece she wrote for her own blog recently – her response to what’s going on with the pandemic and our social distancing.
“A couple of nights ago I woke up at 3:00 AM with this thought: These days I am connected emotionally with everyone on Earth. …”
Sermon Part II
Finding our balance is the goal; getting grounded again when everything is upended around us. As Unitarian Universalists, what binds us together is our shared values. And in particular, we value community and the special ‘stone-soup’ style of co-creating our community together. Being together is one of the things that grounds us as a people of faith.
Over the years we’ve done surveys and polls asking what is it you appreciate about UUCB … we usually do this as a lead up to stewardship (and I will admit, stewardship season is upon us, so watch for something about that in the mail soon.) When people respond we hear about the preaching – (thank you) – and the great music. But mostly we hear about the community and being with like-hearted people.
We are a community of shared values. That’s how we do church. We don’t believe the same things together, instead it is about the simple value of being together. This pandemic is hitting us right at the heart of who we are as a faith community because our emphasis in on community.
And here is what I’ve learned this past week. Here is what helps me shift what’s been going on for me and for all of us from a fear-based reaction in me to an act of resilience. We are finding our ways to connect and even strengthen our connections through this pandemic.
I don’t mean to say, we are all going to make it through this little thing okay. I mean to imply that what people are going through isn’t awful for some, traumatic for others, and deadly for a few. What I mean is simply this: We can respond together in ways that will ease us into this change better. There’s an African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Friends, we are slowing down. Let us go together and we will go far.
Yesterday, we started a formal effort to make phone calls to folks in the congregation we suspect are isolated, who perhaps live alone or are older or are not already connected online. A small number of us have been reaching out to another small number of us: checking in, finding out what’s going on, seeing how we can help. We’ll keep doing that – phone calls to check in with each other.
Another interesting development is all the online meetings we have going on now. I’ve been offering drop-in Zoom meetings each week-day, the schedule is on our website, in our Facebook page, in the announcements insert. Drop in, say hello. I’d love to see you. Our Small Group Ministry folks are figuring out how to Zoom together, as are several of our committees. A friend of mine invited me to play a tabletop game with him and a few other friends online. It was a great opportunity to just relax and laugh and do something that felt familiar with people.
A third bit of news I’ll share is the United Presbyterian Tuesday Community Meals. We are going to staff the kitchen again on Tuesday because it is the 4th Tuesday and people are still hungry. I’ll be there this month in the kitchen. This one is trickier because it involves coming out to the building. I don’t know what the state will think of it, but ‘feeding the hungry’ feels like essential work to me. The kitchen is ‘state-health-code’ clean and healthy. They worked though this last Tuesday, handing out over 80 meals to people on the 17th. If you think you can do this, I’ll tell you, we will figure out how to keep our germs to ourselves as realistically as possible. And … dozens of people will be able to eat that wouldn’t be able to otherwise. This is a powerful way to serve very real needs in our city during this pandemic.
What I mean to reveal by sharing this news about phone calls and community meals and online video calls is to say, we are finding ways to still serve our mission and to still live our values. We are still going to be together; we’re finding our ways to stay in touch even without touching.
How are we going to get through this?
The same way we get through anything – together. We plan to go far, so we’re going to go together. I love you. We’ll see each other through this.
Our world is changed, our focus is narrowed. But we will endure. We are learning of our resilience together. We are leading with compassion and listening for calm wisdom. Yes, our world is changing, and “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
In a world without end
May it be so
Mary, Maya, Maria
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Poetry has a way of revealing life to us in indirect ways. Poetry is like truth with shades and flavors. Through syntax and rhythm, it reveals a way of seeing the world we don’t usually notice. Emily Dickenson advised us to “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” Poetry comes at us from the side and reveals life. So today we honor the poetry common to our Unitarian Universalist worship life.
I have selected three poets, none of whom are Unitarian Universalist, whose poetry is so aligned with our way of worship that they have become part of our canon, (if such a thing could be.) And, of course, I don’t mean to imply that only these three are fit poets for our hearts and minds. Simply, these are three whose names have a poetic ring when I say them together. Mary, Maya, and Maria.
Maria is for Rainer Maria Rilke (RY-ner maREE-a RIL-ka.) In his biography https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/rainer-maria-rilke on The Poetry Foundation website, he is described as “one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets.” Rilke’s work spans the turn of the previous century into the 1900’s. Quintessentially, his work is about life and death; it is a striving for the “deeper meaning in life through art.” One piece from Rilke that has likely been spoken multiple times in nearly every UU sanctuary is the bit about ‘loving the questions themselves.’ It is from the collection, Letters to a Young Poet. It is exactly what it seems to be. A young poet asked Rilke for advice and received several letters in response. The recipient then published them as a collection shortly after Rilke’s death.
From “Letter 4” in Letters to a Young Poet, translated by Stephen Mitchell
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves
as if they were locked rooms
or books written in a very foreign language.
Don’t search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps then, someday far in the future,
you will gradually, without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.
Oh, we UUs do love the questions. And so, this piece has become a central tenet among us. It was Rilke, in this same collection who said: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
Rilke’s work has a great deal of Christian imagery. But the God he writes about is not the traditional deity. Rilke was more of a pantheist, seeing God as a life-force. One interesting analysis (again from the biography on the Poetry Foundation website) says that “Rilke arrives at the paradoxical conception of God as the final result instead of the first cause of the cosmic process.”
Listen to this piece from his earliest work The Book of Hours:
All will come again into its strength:
the fields undivided, the waters undammed,
the trees towering and the walls built low.
And in the valleys, people as strong and varied as the land.
And no churches where God
is imprisoned and lamented
like a trapped and wounded animal.
The houses welcoming all who knock
and a sense of boundless offering
in all relations, and in you and me.
No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.
It offers a striking image of a beloved community such as we strive to accomplish together each week in our Unitarian Universalist gathering.
Another poet who worked from within the compelling imagery of Beloved Community is Maya Angelou. Angelou comes into the concept, as many Americans have, through the civil rights movement in America during the 1960’s. She was, among many things, a civil rights activist who worked with both Dr. King and Malcolm X.
Her biography on the Poetry Foundation website https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/maya-angelou lists her as a poet, a playwright, and performer of dance and song. She was an actress, an activist, and an autobiographer. And forget not, also a composer, a director, an editor, and an essayist. And at heart, she was a storyteller.
Keeping in mind that image of beloved community, she offered this poem, published when she was in her 60’s but harkening back to her youth in the 1930’s and 40’s.
“These Yet to Be United States” – Maya Angelou
Tremors of your network
cause kings to disappear.
Your open mouth in anger
makes nations bow in fear.
Your bombs can change the seasons,
obliterate the spring.
What more do you long for?
Why are you suffering?
You control the human lives
in Rome and Timbuktu.
Lonely nomads wandering
owe Telstar to you.
Seas shift at your bidding,
your mushrooms fill the sky.
Why are you unhappy?
Why do your children cry?
They kneel alone in terror
with dread in every glance.
Their nights are threatened daily
by a grim inheritance.
You dwell in whitened castles
with deep and poisoned moats
and cannot hear the curses
which fill your children’s throats.
I usually connect Angelou with the uplifting poetry and language I love, like when she said: “If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” And “Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.”
But she is also the person who said, in her poem, ‘On Working White Liberals,’ “I’ll believe in Liberal’s aid for us when I see a White man load a Black man’s gun.” Maya had an edge, best to not forget that. But life has an edge as well, so we still have much to learn from Dr. Angelou.
Indeed, the best part of what I learn from her is that through the struggle, we survive. Her critique is always weighted with the reality that the story is not done, there is more still to say. Her most famous work is her autobiography from 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, telling the story of her childhood. Her poem, “Caged Bird” reveals, poetically, much the same truth as the autobiography.
Caged Bird BY MAYA ANGELOU
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
But far above all that her poem “Still I Rise,” as we heard at the Time for All Ages, is the ringing anthem of resilience for our time. She speaks in both the particular as a Black woman in America’s 20th century as well as for all women, for all Americans, for all people… but no mistake – mostly for black women! Because when Black women rise, we all benefit.
And now, we shift our attention to the best known of the three I sing for today in our UU circles. Many is the joke about creating a generic UU service that shall include “your favorite Mary Oliver poem.” A year ago, with the big January snow storm that hit Binghamton, we cancelled services; but I left an ‘in case of emergency’ worship service in the Fireside Room that consisted of a Jason Shelton CD and about a dozen Mary Oliver Poems.
The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Oliver was a guest among the Unitarian Universalists at our General Assembly a few years back and I had the honor to be in the room for her poetry reading. It was remarkable. The way she mixes the nature world with basic human searching is elegant. Even her little poems about her dog Percy accomplish this.
LITTLE DOG’S RHAPSODY IN THE NIGHT by Mary Oliver
He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough
he turns upside down, his four paws
in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.
“Tell me you love me,” he says.
“Tell me again.”
Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.
I’m not a dog person, but I love that little poem. In her biography on the Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-oliver, they say her poetry is “Known for its clear and poignant observations and evocative use of the natural world.” Evocative, yes. That’s the word for her body of work. In her amazing poem “When Death Comes,” she writes: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” She has this way of bringing wonder into our way of seeing the world. Many Unitarian Universalists find their spirituality enriched by her words, by her way of saying it.
I close with her poem “Wild Geese,” so rich with wisdom and power offered into our longing hearts.
Wild Geese –Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Mary, Maya, and Maria. These three poets from outside Unitarian Universalism have done much to help us articulate what is at the heart of our faith. Their poetry reveals life to us and feeds us truth with shades and flavors. We give thanks for the gift of their words and their influence among us. May we ever heed the wisdom of poets in matters of truth and faith.
In a world without end, may it be so.
Opening Words #536 “Morning Poem” by Mary Oliver
Time for All Ages Still I Rise BY MAYA ANGELOU
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Sonnets to Orpheus, Part Two, XXIX ~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
Reading by Liddy Wilks (poet)
. . . poetry is a bridge. An immediate path to becoming better people and being the change in the world. Creating a world less about tearing each other down and apart, and more about coming together. Helping us to realize that we’re not as different as we think. And despite our differences, we are not alone in our grief, pain, joy or happiness.
Reading and writing poetry is the greater good. Whose benefits are the rebuilding and forging a more connected and caring world.
Benediction CONTINUE By Maya Angelou
My wish for you
Is that you continue
To be who and how you are
To astonish a mean world
With your acts of kindness
To allow humor to lighten the burden
Of your tender heart
In a society dark with cruelty
To let the people hear the grandeur
Of God in the peals of your laughter
To let your eloquence
Elevate the people to heights
They had only imagined
To remind the people that
Each is as good as the other
And that no one is beneath
Nor above you
To dare to love deeply
And risk everything
For the good thing
Happily in the sea of infinite substance
Which set aside riches for you
Before you had a name
And by doing so
You and your work
Will be able to continue
Lean in, listen, and Learn
Rev Douglas Taylor
What is wisdom and how do you know that you’ve got some?
In a few minutes I am going to ask you to write a piece of wisdom on the cards you have in your orders of service. We are not going to read them out loud here in the service; instead we are going to post them on the bulletin board out in the hallway for the next few weeks while we consider the theme for the month together. Wisdom. What does it mean to be a people of ‘Wisdom’?
One suggestion for when you are ready to write something on the card – I invite you to not put you name on it. Instead list your age. My card will, for example, have whatever piece of wisdom I put down and then “signed, a 49-year-old.” But, if you would, wait a few minutes more before writing anything on the card. First, I want to unpack one big idea and also then show you a short video.
In preparing for this service, I found a bunch of really great bits of wisdom in particular from a 5-year-old named Charlie. For example, Charlie offers this wisdom about relationships:
Charlie says, “Don’t put a glue stick in her hair. It sounds funny, but she never thinks so.” https://www.menshealth.com/trending-news/a19536383/advice-from-kids/ I’m going to scatter some of Charlie’s wisdom throughout my homily so as to keep your interest as I talk.
And I’ll start with the big idea: Confucius was a very wise teacher from China two and a half thousand years ago. The big idea I want to unpack is from him. Confucianism is a philosophical and religious set of teachings many people follow still today.
So, here is the big idea: According to Confucius, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” (Confucius, Analects, XVI.9, [maybe] tr. anon) I’ve had this quote taped above my desk computer for several years.
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Let me dig in here just a little bit.
Charlie says, “Don’t cross the street without looking both ways because you could get hit by a car and then somebody else gets all the candy.”
So, one method by which we learn wisdom is reflection. That’s really the point of coming to hear a sermon, isn’t it? It gets you thinking. I say some stuff up here and you think about it and reflect on it. This is the benefit of studying scripture or taking a class in ethics. It gets you thinking and reflecting on your life and how you are in the world. Confucius describes that as the noblest way to attain wisdom.
Of course, the real benefit is when such reflection is put into action. I remember reading about how growth and learning comes from allowing chaos and mistakes to happen. It’s about fostering an environment of curiosity and innovation. But that feels like chaos and a lack of control, which is uncomfortable. Reflecting on this piece of wisdom is one thing. Living it is another.
Charlie says, “Bury your money in the back yard. But make a map so you remember where the money is. But then hide the map where you can’t find it, so you don’t dig up the money. Maybe give the map to a friend who has enough money.”
A colleague taught me an invaluable lesson that fits here under ‘imitation.’ I was in my first year of seminary and was complaining about how I’d been treated by an elder minister. I’d felt dismissed and ignored by that elder minister’s words and behavior toward me. Another colleague said “Every colleague serves as an example to us. Not all of them are good examples that we want to emulate. But we can still learn from all of them.” She was suggesting I learned how not to treat new ministers when I become an elder colleague.
According to Confucius, imitation is the easiest method by which we learn wisdom. Everyone has something to teach us by their example. Who do you want to emulate? Who has treated you with kindness, or good support, or clarity of truth? How can you imitate that example in your treatment of others?
Charlie says, “Sometimes you have to laugh so hard, you super-pee. That’s when you pee over your entire pants. Your pants are like ruined with pee. That’s how hard you laughed.”
There’s an old saying: Good judgement comes from experience; experience comes from poor judgement. Don’t be afraid of the mistakes you make. Learn from them. They are valuable. This is not to say our mistakes don’t hurt. Confucius suggests that learning wisdom by experience is the bitterest method, but it definitely works.
Here are somethings I’ve learned through the experience of my mistakes and poor judgement: “Reacting defensively is usually not my best move.”
Sometimes when another person is angry with me, they are really angry about something else. It’s not always about me. I’ve made the mistake of reacting only to the surface level of a conversation or argument, only to discover later that there was something else going on that had nothing to do with me. If I had not reacted defensively in the moment, I might have been able to help. Reacting defensively is usually not my best move.
This is the big idea I wanted to unpack. Essentially, that we have wisdom, all of us. We’ve acquired it by various methods to be sure. And over the years we keep gaining more wisdom. Listen to the wisdom around you and within you.
I have one more thing to offer you before I invite you to write something on your card. I have a video you will enjoy, and it might help you think of something to write down on your card if you haven’t already decided. This video is from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation entitled “How to Age Gracefully.”
Any time after the service, bring your card up front and leave it on the table here with our chalice.
I’ll close with one more bit of advice from Charlie. “If you eat salad, make sure it’s not poison ivy. That poison ivy will get you, mister.”
In a world without end, may it be so.
Because We All Have Wings
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Brené Brown says we are ‘brave and brokenhearted.’ She reminds us that we rise, not in spite of our brokenness and adversity, but in many cases because of it. Often, our struggles become part of our identity. The point is not that being broken or hurt is somehow a good thing for us. No. The point is simply that it is a reality we all experience in varying degrees. At some point in our lives we will lose, we will fall and fail and make huge mistakes. Our hearts will get broken. We will lie and be lied to. We will run up against a larger adversary. We will trip up and land hard. Each of us, at one point or another, or at many points along the way, will break.
Our struggles are not good, getting hurt and heartbroken is not good. It’s simply reality. The point is that it’s possible to fall down and rise up again. The point is that it’s possible, and in fact it is something we do a lot. The struggles we survive become part of our identity. Rising up from the heartbreak and trouble is what how we are resilient. Brené Brown says we are ‘brave and brokenhearted.’ Our stories are littered with examples of our resilience. As Helen Keller is remembered for saying; “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”
I’ve approached the topic of resilience several times over the years. It is a central theme in spirituality and life. It is something I have tried to understand better, to live more fully, to offer to others. I’ve read about it and thought about it quite a lot. Lately it seems when I look up the word, there is some reference to pillows. “This pillow is resilient. It will spring back and hold its form over the years. Buy this pillow.”
So, our pillows ‘springing back into their original form’ is seen as a mark of resilience … for pillows. Our lives, our spirits, have the quality of, not springing back, but springing forward. After living through adversity or heartbreak, we don’t ever return to what had been, never back to our original form. Instead we emerge changed yet still true to our original form.
Consider the example of baseball superstar Jackie Robinson. In the 1940s and ‘50s Robinson demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of adversity. As the first African American to play in the major leagues, he persisted through relentless harassment from fans and fellow players alike. He did not ‘spring back to his original form’ after the slurs and abuses. He sprang forward, he emerged changed yet true. And that example led the sport and eventually the country to also move forward, changed yet true.
We do not spring back to our original form. We spring forward, changed yet still true to that original form. And we rise. We rise because we have fallen.
This is worth remembering not just for personal difficulties. Resilience is a communal quality as well. Social change and the vagaries of politics can be disheartening. I have been frustrated and angry about much of what is going on in politics lately. The impeachment process ran its course pretty much how I expected it would. But even outside of the partisan aspect, there are concerns I have about the health of our democracy now that I did not have 4 years ago. I certainly hope our nation is resilient. I certainly hope we rise from this, because I am weary of all this falling.
Like the adversity Jackie Robinson and other African Americans have experienced, like the devastation of the stonewall uprising, like the heartbreak and slander the suffragettes suffered, may the time in which we now live also prove to be a turning point toward greater progress and resilience.
Last week in our service I emphasized the natural aspect of resilience. I said it is a capacity we all have within us naturally. But that doesn’t mean it is easy. At a major turning point in my life I discovered this quote from Maya Angelou. She says: “No one knows what it costs the bulb, the onion bulb or the tulip bulb, to split – to crack itself open – to allow the thin tendril of life to emerge.” (Restoring Hope, Cornell West)
Was anyone else surprised by the ending of the children’s story? (After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat.) It’s a nice retelling with a good message. Humpty Dumpty overcomes that fear of heights, I saw that coming. He is terrified as he climbs the wall again but he climbs it anyway. I saw that coming, too. That part was predictable. It was good, I loved it; and it was predictable. But I was surprised at the end when the egg cracked and Humpty Dumpty spread his wings and flew. But of course, there would be a bird inside the egg. Of course.
Because we all have wings. But oh, the cost. The cost of cracking yourself open, to allow the wounded places to both heal and break wider. Oh, the cost to open oneself and allow the tender tendril of life out into the harsh world. Resilience is hard. When we most want to curl up and protect what is precious, the way forward is to paradoxically both heal and break wider. Resilience is the art of how we move forward through heartbreak and adversity that we may rise.
And as I said last week, it is natural. How do we overcome? What does it take to be resilient? One answer is that resilience is natural capacity we all have within us. And at the same time, it is a quality we can enhance and practice and become better at. There are skills that we can develop, ways we can practice our resilience. Companion qualities we can encourage.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that resilience has a lot to do with perspective. Resilient people tend to understand that there are things over which we have little control. You are not in charge of other people’s actions. Situations come up which you cannot stop from happening. What you can control is how you respond. As a child I was not very resilient. I always felt like I was not in control of my life, like I suffered at the whims of other’s kindness or cruelty. Bullies were a regular feature to my school life and the unpredictability that comes with alcoholism was ever present at home. It took me years to uncover my own sense of agency and control. People who are resilience have a good perspective of what they are in charge of, and what is out of their control. Resilient people do not expend their energy trying to control others or complaining about things beyond their control. They focus their attention on what they can control: their responses to what is going on within and around them.
Another quality of resilient people is playfulness and imagination. Serious people don’t bounce. Think about the way most of us get when they are faced with a significant trauma in life, we tend to over value the power the event holds. Having a sense of humor, or better, a sense of life’s absurdity, is important. It is the experience of “Oh, wow!” instead of “Oh, no!”
Alexander Fleming left some dirty petri dishes on his work station and went away on a trip. When he got back, he was not surprised to find most were contaminated. He was sorting through them to see what he could salvage, which was not much. But he noticed something odd in one dish … and perhaps you’ve heard this story, he discovered penicillin from his sloppy lab. Instead of saying “Oh, no!” he said “Oh, wow!” There are stories like this for the inventions of pacemakers, air conditioners, and post-it notes. Imagination and playfulness can help us see possibilities where others see only obstacles and adversity.
Let me offer you another quality of resilient people. They keep perspective, they can be playful, and they are persistence. Persistent people keep plugging away at the problems in life and thus, tend to accomplish some pretty positive things. I bumped into the story of one child helping their younger sibling learn to jump into the swimming pool. The younger one kept hovering at the edge, “but I’m scared,” she would cry. Her older sibling would try to comfort her, “You’ll be okay. I’m right here. You don’t need to be afraid.” But nothing worked until an older lady at the pool swam by and said, “It’s okay to be scared. Do it anyway. Do it scared.” That proved to be helpful advice. Instead of ‘don’t be scared;” “Do it scared.” Persistence is not about perfection. It’s not about having it all together and keeping it all together along the way. Persistence is about doing it anyway; and to keep doing it even if you’re scare, even if it’s not working yet, even if others don’t join in. It is about falling down and getting back up again, and again, and again.
You don’t need to be perfect, all you need is to have failed or fallen down or gotten lost or broken. Resilience is about rising up again and again; with perspective, with playfulness, and with persistence. Add a little prayer and amazing things are possible. We all can be resilient like Jackie Robinson or Alexander Fleming or Maya Angelou. Because we all have wings. Like Humpty Dumpty, all of us can fly; but sometimes we have to break to discover it. Do not fear failure or falling down – or go ahead and fear it, but don’t let the fear stop you. Don’t run from mistakes or heartbreak. Love boldly. Reach for the impossible. Throw yourself into it. Fly.
Perhaps some of you know what Douglas Adams said about flying. In his classic book The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, he said there is a knack to flying. “The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”
This quote always reminds me of something my kid’s Aikido instructor told us about falling. This was years ago when the kids were little. Mr. Cuffy was explaining how a central and basic skill in Aikido was learning to fall without getting hurt. It involves having an awareness of your body and of physics, and developing certain skills.
He described slipping on the sidewalk one icy day. It was one of those cinematic slips, when both feet were in the air before he started actually falling. Someone came rushing over to help him back to his feet and see if he needed to go to the hospital. But Mr. Cuffy had landed with a roll, dusted the snow off his pants, and walked on. He said, it’s a surreal feeling to slip like that and, while you’re falling, to know that you are going to land okay. He knew that because he’s spent years training himself how to fall well.
Do you know how to fall well? Maybe not literally, as Mr. Cuffy could do. But metaphorically. Can you fall well? Maybe when you fall, unlike Mr. Cuffy, you do get hurt. So maybe you don’t fall well. But do you know how to rise after the fall? Do you rise well? Brené Brown reminds us in our reading today; “There is no greater threat to the critics and cynics and fearmongers than those of us who are willing to fall because we have learned how to rise.”
There is hope in knowing this. There will always be people who revel in seeing someone else fall down, seeing someone else suffer; ‘the critics and cynics and fearmongers’ Brené Brown calls them. We’ve been socialized to think that falling down reflects poorly on us. But truly the rising up is where the power resides, and you can’t rise up if you haven’t fallen down a time or two. Rising up is what we all can do; it is what we all actually do quite a lot. It is the heartbeat of social movements and social change. Resilience is not just about your personal capacity to respond well to adversity. It is also our communal capacity to usher in change at a societal level when faced with injustice or tyranny.
Historical scholar Howard Zinn offers this remarkable insight:
“When you have models of how people can come together, even for a brief period, it suggests that it could happen for a longer period. When you think of it, that’s the way things operate in the scientific world, so why not socially? As soon as the Wright brothers could keep a plane aloft for 27 seconds, everyone knew from that point on that a plane might be kept aloft for hours. It’s the same socially and culturally…
“If true community can stay aloft for 27 seconds, it is only a matter of time before such a community can last for hours. Only a matter of time before a beloved community, as Martin Luther King, Jr, spoke of, can come into being.” (H. Zinn, 2006, “The Common Cradle of Concern”)
There are thousands of examples of this in history and contemporary affairs. We can rise, we do. We can support each other in communities of hope and resilience. I’ve seen it. And I know we can do it really well for at least 27 seconds at a go. I’m sure of it. With practice, we extend the length of that grace over minutes and hours. Each time we respond to failure and brokenness with perspective, playfulness, persistence, and a little prayer, we extend the length of time we can keep our resilient selves and this resilient community aloft.
It’s okay to be broken or cracked or flat out, fallen on the ground. It’s okay, because you are resilient. We all have wings. It’s okay, because rising up again comes after the falling down. And if you can only rise for 27 seconds, it will be enough. And we know that it’s only a matter of time before we all have our wings unfurled like a ‘network of mutuality’ to rise and bless the beautiful world together.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Wake Up to the Revolution
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Our reading this morning is from the Ware Lecture that Dr. King delivered in 1966 https://www.uua.org/ga/past/1966/ware. For some context, the Ware Lecture https://www.uua.org/ga/program/highlights/ware-lecture is a significant event each year at our UUA General Assembly. It was established back in the early- to mid-1800’s to honor three generations of distinguished individuals from the Ware family. And yes, Ed Ware (a long-time member of the Binghamton UU congregation) has a family connection in that line, you can ask him about it.
Each year, the UUA president invites a distinguished guest from outside Unitarian Universalism to speak. Over the years the we’ve heard from Jane Addams, Howard Thurman, Linus Pauling, Helen Caldicott, Krista Tippett, Van Jones, Eboo Patel, and Cornell West. It is an impressive list. In 1966, the speaker was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his title was “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution.” Dr. King was invited to speak to the gathered Unitarian Universalists and the message he chose to bring us was to wake up!
Dr. King begin his speech to the Unitarian Universalists with the story of Rip van Winkle. In case the tale has fallen out of fashion; briefly, it is a short story by Washington Irving about a man who falls asleep up in the Catskill mountains for 20 years. Most cogently, he falls asleep while King George the third of England rules the land and wakes to find President George Washington in charge. Rip van Winkle slept through a revolution.
In drawing the parallel, King said to us,
“One of the great misfortunes of history is that all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.” (MLK Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution)
He then goes on to describe the demands of “the new situation” as well as what he means by “the new attitudes and outlooks” needed to face it.
He talked about the shift underway in how racism is experienced in America after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were signed into law. He talked about the ongoing pervasive attitude of racial superiority (or ‘white supremacy’ as we might say today.) He told us about the ongoing threats of violence and annihilation. King did not say it quite this baldly, but it was a time in which a black man could be killed with impunity, often because the police looked the other way or even participated in the lynching and murders. Dr. King warned us about the apathy of the church, the tragic sin of standing by while people were oppressed and degraded. He warned us against sleeping through the revolution.
And frankly, in all fairness, we Unitarian Universalists did fall asleep after we experienced an internal implosion over racial issues just a few years after King spoke with us. As a movement, we pretty much stopped talking about race through the 70’s and 80’s and much of the 90’s. Now, that’s a broad and un-nuanced way of putting it, but it is largely true.
But a new day has arrived. The current generation of young people faces much the same adversity folks faced the 60’s. This is true nationally, and in our faith specifically. There are remarkable similarities. There is an upswell in calls for civil rights and justice for marginalized identities. Young people are riled up and the older generation doesn’t quite understand why. We have ongoing foreign wars that are largely unsanctioned and unpopular. There is corruption throughout the government, including up at the highest level. Back in the ‘60’s, Dr. King would often cite three evils for us to deal with as a nation: racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. Are we not still facing these three evils today?
So, in 1966, Dr. King said, all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands. And the great period of change he referred to then is strikingly similar to the great period of change we are now in today. We can add a few problems and difficulties that were not in play back then. Healthcare, for example, was not a ‘for-profit’ endeavor back then; we invented that problem in the 70’s. And the climate crisis has grown dramatically worse since King’s time. The need for human rights and civil rights for other marginalized groups has expanded and echoes the work King and others had done in their time.
Many people who were deeply involved in the hard work of justice-making in the 60’s may be rightly disheartened that we find ourselves in so similar a situation today. But I tell you the fires have not died and there are workers in the field today building for a better world.
Dr. King said we would need new attitudes and outlooks to address the situation. As you might suspect, the new attitudes and outlooks he called for over 50 years ago are applicable today. Indeed the ‘new’ attitudes and outlooks he called for back then, while radical, were not really new in the 60’s.
There were two particular ideas, theological ideas, that he mentioned in his speech to the Unitarian Universalists as the attitudes and outlooks needed for those times. They are theological ideas that resonant well with the various theologies we have here in Unitarian Universalism.
The first in the mindset of interconnectedness as a perspective of renewal. In the 1966 Ware Lecture he said simply, “All life is inter-related, and somehow we are all tied together. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” In other speeches he talked about it as a “network of mutuality, a single garment of destiny,” in which we are all caught up together; and how “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It’s all inter-related. This theological premise that we are interconnected led King and it leads us today into the work of justice.
It becomes important to be in relationship with the poor and oppressed, that you understand the condition of the disenfranchised and dispossessed. Dr. King said “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” I am suggesting our interconnectedness calls us to have relationships with the people we would help. And what an opportunity we have while worshiping here at United Presbyterian downtown for the next few months!
The second theological perspective I’ll mention is that of the Beloved Community. Dr. King kept the vision of a Beloved Community fresh in the people’s minds, as a beacon toward which we were striving. The whole underpinning of the I Have a Dream speech is that the ‘dream’ was really a social vision of the Beloved Community. The dream is the goal. And here is the trick. This is what King came to say to us back in in 1966. To achieve the dream, good people like you and me need to first wake up and stay awake through the revolution.
What are we going to do? What are you willing to do? It is all inter-related and our goal is nothing less than Beloved Community. What are we going to do?
Our congregation has been deep in the details of our renovation project and the capital campaign, the floor plans and possible mortgage senecios. What are we going to get and how much will it cost? This has been consuming us. And rightly so – it is big work. And, soon we will be on the other side of our part of that work. The contractors will get busy and we can return to other matters. Soon, maybe even next week, we will turn our attention more fully to the mission for which our congregation exists and for which we are making all this great effort at renovation.
And what will we do?
In the speech he gave to the Unitarian Universalists he quoted Victor Hugo who had once said there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come. I would cautiously suggest that time is cyclical and the time has come again for the grand ideas of freedom and justice in our country. And it is the church that needs to herald these ideas, it is the church that must wake up and shout such things in the highways and byways of our nation.
In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? King wrote:
“The church has an opportunity and a duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation. It must affirm that every human life is a reflection of divinity, and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man.”
This is the call for religion to recognize its role in ushering in a solution to national problems.
In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail he wrote that the church had been behaving like a thermometer of culture when it used to be like a thermostat! During Dr. King’s time, the church had an opportunity and a duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of racism. Churches did so then and need to do so now. Will we? He called on churches to be champions once more for the poor, to cry out against the sin of economic inequality. Will we? King called on churches to raise their voices against the oppressive machinery of war and destruction. Will we?
The message of Dr. King was not contained as only a message against racism. He spoke out against the triple threat of racism, militarism and economic disparity. A key demand in his I Have a Dream speech, for example, was for “a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” (A line that often gets missed!)
Dr. King was killed while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN who were struggling for a living wage and for their dignity. Dr. King said,
“There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American worker whether a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer.”
Dr. King’s vision still serves for our current crisis, as there are still parts of that vision we have not fully realized. We can yet work against racism. We still can take part in speaking out against endless war. There is still more to do, right here in downtown Binghamton to change systems and support individuals struggling with poverty and economic inequality. Dr. King shared with us the dream but to achieve the dream we must first wake up.
To achieve the dream of economic equality, we must wake up enough to recognize that nearly 40 million people in American living in poverty is unacceptable and that we can do something about it. To achieve the dream of a day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” we need to first wake up to the fact that we have 15 million children living in poverty in this country, which is unacceptable and something we can address if we wanted to address it.
To achieve the dream of a day when increasing our teachers’ take-home pay will triumph over tax-breaks for tycoons; when providing for the poor pulls rank over putting them in prison; when we adjust our attitude as a society about the possibility of putting people of color into positions of power … then we must first wake up to the myth of meritocracy and the insidious reality of white supremacy culture.
I share the dream of a day when we put our great wisdom and wealth to work feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and caring for the sick. I share the dream of a day when our nation is once more recognized as the leader of the free world not by of the magnitude of our military but by the capacity of our compassion. I share the dream of a day when we wake up and realize that before we can be a great nation, we must first be a good nation. We Unitarian Universalists have a role in bringing that Dream to fruition. It is time for us to again wake up and join the work of building the Beloved Community for today.
In a world without end,
May it be so.