Sermons 2020-21


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Rev. Douglas Taylor

As many of you know, I have an annual tradition of preaching a sermon on the topic of forgiveness every fall in connection with the High Holy Days on the Jewish calendar. I have said, many times, “Forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate religious activity.”

For Jewish people, the new year is a time to begin again, to return to the path of becoming the people they are called by God to become. Through the course of each year, they read through the whole Torah. At this time, they complete that cycle and begin again. To enter the process, they repent of their sins, of those things that get in the way. They offer and seek forgiveness. I have said before that I find it “remarkable to have an annual opportunity to engage with the experience.”

Over the years, I have offered sermon after sermon extolling the great virtue of forgiveness. I have talked about self-forgiveness and forgiving others, how to seek it and how to offer it, how it plays out in personal relationships and on a more global scale. I have explored topics of peace, anger, hope, and healing each through the lens of forgiveness.

I have said,

“[Forgiveness] does not only serve as a tool for repairing relationships, it can be about healing your own spirit so you can move forward again. Forgiveness is about freeing up the energy we had spent in our anger, our resentment, our grudge. Our anger and grief consume our spirit. Forgiveness is about letting go, about allowing healing.”

I mention all this to be clear: I am a fan of forgiveness. I am a proponent and an encourager. I am in favor of forgiveness. Today, however, we’re going to spend some time talking about not forgiving. Let’s linger for a time in the consideration of when not to offer forgiveness.

I have two paths that have led me into this topic. First, I put a question out to my colleagues this summer. I asked …

“Every year I preach about Forgiveness in the fall. I’ve been at the same congregation for 17 years and am wondering what I’ll tell them this fall. I’d love to hear suggestions.”

And I was surprised to hear a few responses along the lines of – ‘hey the world is a mess, let’s talk about what we don’t forgive.’ Or, like the story of Moishele letting God off the hook,, a few colleagues suggested we may well be wondering how to forgive 2020 for what an awful year this has been – and perhaps we shouldn’t.

This started me down the path, wondering: When is it a bad idea to offer forgiveness? When is it better to hold back on that until something else has been worked through first, something like justice or truth, or even grace? Maybe it’s not time for forgiveness yet. And if that’s how it might work for something big like the awfulness of this year, might it also be true for something smaller and closer like events in your personal life?

This line of thinking opened me to the second pathway into this topic. There is a song that came our a few years back now by an artist known for her party attitude and her dance music, Kesha. Her early music was a lot of ‘let’s get drunk and have fun.’ But this song I’m going to talk about came later. The song I’m talking about is called “Praying.” It is a ballad about the healing she fought to have after her abusive relationship with her producer.

The perspective offered is about the power of healing. She begins talking about the abuse. The opening line of the song –

Well, you almost had me fooled

Told me that I was nothing without you

Oh, but after everything you’ve done

I can thank you for how strong I have become

’Cause you brought the flames and you put me through hell

I had to learn how to fight for myself

And we both know all the truth I could tell

I’ll just say this is I wish you farewell

I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’ …

She doesn’t say, ‘I hope you’ re somewhere suffering the way you made me suffer.’ She doesn’t say, ‘you hurt me, I hope you are now hurting.’ Instead she says ‘I hope you’re somewhere praying. I hope your soul is changing. I hope you find your peace, falling on your knees, praying.’ Instead of following the usual script of seeking revenge, Kesha sings about letting go.

Someone once said, “Forgiveness is me giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me.” (Anonymous) 1800’s preacher and poet E. H. Chapin once said “Never does the human soul appear so strong as when it foregoes revenge, and dares forgive an injury.” But here’s the thing, in Kesha’s song, she indicates that what she’s offering is not forgiveness. She offers instead her hope that her adversary will change, but not because she has forgiven him. In the song’s bridge, she sings:

Oh, sometimes I pray for you at night

Someday, maybe you’ll see the light

Oh, some say, in life, you’re gonna get what you give

But some things only God can forgive

Kesha, in this song, is not offering her forgiveness. Instead she is offering the hope that her adversary will change.

Call to mind someone you feel has done you an injury, someone who has hurt you. Maybe they are still in your life, maybe they are not. But there is something still unresolved between you. (If you can’t call to mind a personal relationship, it may be easier to consider a celebrity or political figure whose actions you find hurtful even though they are not directed at you personally.) Call to mind the injury, the wound, the hurt they gave you. Maybe even the anger and pain you felt as a result. But don’t get lost in that. Instead, imagine yourself wishing that person to ‘see the light,’ to experience a change in their soul; but specifically not you forgiving them. They may find some forgiveness but not from you. Instead, what you wish for is for them to do their own work and become a better person. Does that feel different from forgiving them?

Here is what I think is happening in this. In the song, Kesha does not have any wish to reconnect with her adversary. She doesn’t want to repair the relationship. She doesn’t want to continue to have that producer in her life. She is working to let go rather than forgive. She is focused on her own healing rather than repairing a broken relationship.

Perhaps when we talk about the value of forgiveness for ourselves – even if we do not maintain the relationship in question – maybe that’s not actually forgiveness. Maybe healing and forgiveness go together most of the time, but not necessarily every time. Separating the two ideas is helpful. Sure, they travel together most of the time; but healing and forgiveness are two different things.

Think on the analogy of physical healing. If you have been cut – maybe you had surgery, for example – you need to heal before you go exercising again. Forgiveness, in this analogy, is a workout with another person. It takes heavy lifting. To offer forgiveness is to do that heavy lifting with someone. If you do it when you have not yet healed, is just painful and likely to perpetuates the harm. It might even make it worse.

If you are in an abusive relationship, don’t forgive that person. Leave, heal; later we can talk about forgiveness if that is warranted, but it might not be. There is an element in our culture that comes out of Christianity calling for instant forgiveness. It calls for us to offer forgiveness like Jesus on the cross. Forgive them, even while they hurt you. I say, that’s not a good idea. That is not the lesson we are meant to learn from that scene in scripture.

Now, I am not saying you should hold on to your grudges. I am not suggesting it is good or healthy to want vengeance or to stew in your anger. All I am saying is that to wish for someone to change – to pray for them to become better – is not the same as forgiveness. We can let go of the anger and the pain as we heal, but that doesn’t mean we need to let our abusers back into our lives. I am not saying we want those who have hurt us to suffer. I am suggesting that we can want those who have hurt us to also heal, that they may grow and stop hurting people.

And, forgiveness is a second thing.

Forgiveness is about letting them back into your life, about repairing the relationship on a new, healthier foundation. Or, don’t. I don’t think forgiveness is a spiritual imperative. I think healing is more important. Quite likely there will also be forgiveness, because once you have healed, you will find you have the strength, and probably a yearning, to do the hard work of forgiveness. Some of this, I must confess, I have learned from Lois Einhorn and her work on Forgiveness. She has said healing was her goal. Eventually she offered forgiveness to herself, only to discover ‘forgiveness for those who had hurt her’ was happening as well – almost as an aftereffect.

As with the song from Kesha, the goal is healing. Repairing the relationship through forgiveness may or may not also happen. But I implore you to not rush forgiveness. It is a powerful tool of transformation; but it is not good to fake it or pretend you’ve done it. That will likely backfire. Focus on healing instead.

Yes, forgiveness couples with healing in extraordinary ways. Forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate religious activity. And it may not be what is required of you yet. It may not be your work to do. Such a transformation is not to be expected in every situation. I’m not saying don’t try for it. Hear me saying, relax and heal. I am certain that I will come to you next year with a plea to lean into the art of forgiveness. Have no doubt that I will return to my usual encouragement for us engage in the good, hard work of forgiveness. But for today, step back. Let the hurt and the anger flow away. Save forgiveness for another time. Let today be for healing: your healing and the healing of those who have hurt you. Let today be for healing.

In a world without end,

May it be so

Racism Re-Branded

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Racism Re-Branded

Rev. Douglas Taylor

March 29, 2020

Welcome back to another episode of ‘The Preacher Is Angry at our Racist Criminal Justice System.’ Black Lives Matter. Yes, in the news this week we had another police-shooting of a black person, Jacob Blake. This was followed by protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin which then turned to riots. Things escalated to include White nationalists – basically white gangs pretending to be an organized and well-regulated militia – showing up with guns to terrorize the protestors. And then one white kid shot three protestors, killing two of them. Black Lives Matter. And I continue to be baffled by those who complain that the destruction of property is a bad response to a killing, yet more killing is seen as a justifiable response to the destruction of property. Black Lives Matter.

Last weekend I was invited to participate in an orientation activity for the incoming freshman at Binghamton University. The administration selected the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson and the documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay as the basis of community building and bonding conversations. With this Covid-19 pandemic causing death and disruption across the country, causing considerable difficulty for education plans on college campuses, this school decided to host deep conversations about systemic racism and corruption in the justice system. They decided what these anxious, incoming students needed was to dig deep into the value of diversity and the need to speak out against systemic injustice. I applaud their initiative. As part of the BU Interfaith Counsel, I served as a facilitator for three rounds of these conversations.

In preparation I read the book and watched the documentary. 13th is available to watch for free on Youtube right now. The documentary was eye-opening. I highly recommend it. I plan to lead a book discussion on Just Mercy in October for us here in the congregation. For today, let me focus on the documentary, 13th and how it relates to current events and indeed our values as a faith community. The premise centers around the loophole written into the 13th amendment. Most people know the 13th amendment to the US Constitution as one that abolished slavery. But that’s not quite true. The essence of the amendment does say “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States.”

But that’s not what it actually says. There’s a loophole in this 1865, post-Civil War amendment. Back a hundred and fifty-five years ago, congress worked in a way to continue slavery while officially abolishing it. The full text of the amendment reads: 

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Involuntary servitude or slavery continues as an American institution through our prison system. And I hope no one is surprised by the statistics showing the rise from roughly 350,000 people incarcerated in 1970 to over 2.3 million in 2016. 2.3 million … that ‘point 3’ there is where we were about 50 years ago. And I trust no one is surprised by the statistics showing the prison population is 40% black, while they are only 13% of the US population. Whites also make up just under 40% of the prison population even though we are 64% of the US population. This is more than disproportionate. In the documentary 13th lines out the rise and the shift in politics and culture that brought us to this point.

One significant pivot point in the history is referred to in the reading this morning. Ibram Kendi mention’s the 1997 National Conversation on Race launched by then President Clinton. I was in Seminary at that time and I remember in the fall of 1997 at Meadville Lombard Theological School, we had significant conversations about race. Of course, National Conversations on topics like race tend to circle around unproductively, quickly locking into political lines and continued divisiveness because no one is really listening or showing up to learn anything. But a Conversation on Race happening at a seminary? That’s different. We had symposiums and special guest lecturers. We were all there to listen and contribute and learn.

That’s a significant distinction in how to have a conversation like this. Aim to have it among people you are willing to be real with, people you are willing to be uncomfortable with, people who are willing to open up with you. Aim to have such a conversation in an environment of growth and learning. One such place is a faith community.

I noticed last weekend when I was facilitating these conversations at the university with the freshman, we used what they called “guardrails” which I would say essentially functioned like a covenant. It was a set of ground rules about listening and being respectful and using “I-statements.” It was very much the sort of container we create in our congregation when we have difficult conversations. It is the sort of container that – when done well – allows us to have conflict and differences and disagreements without unravelling the bonds of our community.

Back in 2017 our congregation participated in a Teach-In about White Supremacy. We’d been doing a lot of work together around anti-racism and White Privilege. The conversation in 2017 focused on the term ‘White Supremacy,” and it was not easy or readily embraced by all of us. And our goal was not to get everyone on the same page. Our goal was not to indoctrinate. Our goal was to deepen the conversation together. It’s hard.

We keep pushing ourselves deeper into the conversation, getting more familiar with what is happening and what is means for different people. This is powerful work we are doing. And we always move a little bit with each encounter. I remember discovering Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow in 2012. Reading that book, I was amazed at how much I had figured out before even opening the book and yet again by how much I was not done learning. I’m still not.

Several years back, the phrase Black Lives Matter was a little contentious among us. We had to work through what the slogan did and did not mean. We had to work through how we were perceived in the community for putting that Black Lives Matter sign out on the side of our building. This past month at our Board Retreat, the idea of leaning in more strongly to Black Lives Matter issues was a touchstone for many Board members. It was talked about with a deep familiarity and agreement. I’m not saying everyone in this congregation today is 100% comfortable with being a full-throated, sign-carrying, hold-the banner-at-the-front-of-the-protest supporter of Black Lives Matter. But we have been in the conversation together long enough that we aren’t rehashing it every time it comes up.

I think we are starting to experience that with the phrase “White Supremacy” as well. That phrase was uncomfortable to a lot of us when we started using it regularly 3 years ago. It’s still uncomfortable for some, but it is growing familiar.

Next in line will be the current rally cry to Defund the Police or in some cases it is a call to Abolish the Police. We haven’t talked a lot together about that, but we should. Did you know, the UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray issued a special President’s Column in the UU World magazine this past June, in which she outlined her support of the Abolish the Police movement. It is a more radical of a stance than most UUs are ready to take.

She wrote:

We must demilitarize and defund the police… The notion that these systems create safety is a lie of white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism. Just as we witness in the commentary on the present uprisings, it has always been to protect wealth and property—not life, and certainly not Black lives. We can’t reform the current system of policing in America. We must find a new way to keep one another safe.

Let’s talk about this. What does that mean? Are we ready to talk about making pledges to not call the police? What are we prepared to do instead? I’m still at the beginning of this conversation. I know some of you have been here for a while already and others are stunned right now that I’m even suggesting it. I expect this will be one of our next big conversation together.

Racism has changed and grown and morphed over the decades in America. We still have a few corners in the country where the Ku Klux Klan wears white sheets, but mostly the racism in our country is systemic, rolling across us like something normal. In the 50’s police and politicians and regular folks would shout racial slurs and talk about segregation. That’s what racism looked like then. That’s what a lot pf people are still looking for in this conversation. But things have changed. As the years went on, we had President Reagan talking about “Cadillac-driving welfare queens” and everyone know he was talking about black women. We had Hillary Clinton in the 80’s talking about “Super-Predators” and everyone knew she was talking about black men.

These are political dog whistles, words that don’t literally say something racist but imply it at a very deep level. Trump’s rhetoric is practically non-stop dog whistles. “Good people on both sides,” “Chinese virus,” “They should go back to the countries they came from,” “We used to be a lot rougher with guys like that back in the day.” All of that is just coded dog whistles for todays racism.

When a presidential candidate talks about Law and Order, that’s a well-documented stand-in code for racism. The Law and Order always lands hardest on poor neighborhoods, on people of color, and on folks at the margins. Listen for these coded ways people, particularly politicians, talk. States’ rights and ‘stop-n-frisk’ laws, drug enforcement policies and use of the word ‘thug.’ Racism is not simply about individual acts of bigotry and prejudice; rather it is insidiously woven into the fabric of our culture and country.

Spend less energy on the one white kid with an AR-15 walking unmolested past the cops after murdering two people in front of dozens of witnesses. Spend more energy on what systems are supporting that scenario to take place. The big piece I keep coming back to is the systemic element in all of this.

I have heard many times over the years that liberals like myself are just crying out about our victimhood and how awful and racist we all are. That the whole point of anti-racism education is the make white people feel bad about themselves. I don’t know about that. I mean, yes there is good work to be done through education and self-reflection. But if the big thing folks come away with is just feeling guilty it seems we’ve just wasted a lot of time for nothing.

What is actually going to help? Changes in legislation will help. As Dr. king said:

It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. The law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also (Ware Lecture, 1966)

That’s essentially what the racists are doing in our country today – just in reverse. They are being pragmatic about it. They are pushing for legislation what has the impact without needing it to be specifically racist: drug policies, criminal justice initiatives, tax cuts.

What is going to help is if a whole lot of white people start taking this seriously and start asking questions. Get curious. Why are the policies always hurting people of color disproportionately? Why are the junkies always black and the terrorists always brown in the media? Why can we afford two tanks for the Binghamton police department but there’s no money for a grocery store in the first ward? Get curious. Why are the black men being shot in the street while the white men get their day in court?

The work is not to feel bad about yourself if you are white. That’s just a waste of energy. The work is to learn to recognize what is happening systemically and fight against that level of the racism. We are steeped in it. But we keep stepping up to the conversation. Egregious examples of the consequences are still playing out in front of us. But we keep showing up to point it out and demand better from our society. White supremacy is grasping for more power and sway over our lives. Complicity continues to be poured over us by our consumer-culture. But still we rise. But still we keep asking questions about what’s really going on. But still we insist on truth and nuance. But still be lean into the hard conversation. We keep showing up, we keep listening, we keep learning more, we keep insisting on change.

That long moral arc may very well be bending toward justice. But today we see most clearly that it is a long arc and we have been bending with it for a while now. And we will bend with it for a while longer. That’s what we do. That’s how we will get through. Black Lives Matter.

In a world without end

May it be so.

Worship Wave of the Future

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Worship Wave of the Future

Rev. Douglas Taylor


I was talking with someone from another church community recently about how thankful he was for the online worship services folks are doing. He said it made it possible for a friend of his to attend who had not been able to attend for several years due to a severe mold allergy combined with the relatively mild levels of mold in their old church building. On Zoom, his friend has not missed a Sunday and loves being back in the community.

I was talking with someone else this week about how they find the online worship to be stilted and flat. She appreciates the effort, she assured me, and will keep showing up; but she longs for face-to-face contact again. The intellectual stimulation is nice, but the community is missing.

Another friend was lamenting the difficulty of hosting their pagan rituals online. They laughed about their shift from an earth-centered practice to a technology-centered practice. They smiled wistfully when they explained to me that even online in our separate houses, we are all still in the same universe. The energy each person puts out will always find its way even if we are not in the same room breathing the same air.

My sermon today is a companion to one I delivered back in the spring based on Arundhati Roy’s piece “The Pandemic Is a Portal.”  In that piece Roy wrote:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

This pandemic has had an impact on our worshiping community. Here we are online. This pandemic has pushed us to ‘break with the past and imagine [our] world anew.” We pivoted our worship services online instead of in-person for our health and the continuing health of others in our community. This spring, the Board, in consultation with the UUA and current scientific recommendations, voted to plan to remain worshiping online through this coming church-year, through until May 2021.

Let me unpack that a little. The Board’s intention is not to lock us into doing online worship and online everything for the next full year. Only that we are planning for things to be online. When it is safe to meet in person, we will do so. If it is safe to meet for worship in-person before May 2021, then we will shift our plans. But for now, our planning revolves around us staying online for worship for the coming year.

At our recent Board Retreat a week ago we began plans for a ‘reopening team,’ a group of thoughtful people to advise the Board about when and how we can host in-person activities throughout this coming year.

Worship is a very risky activity for a variety of reasons; but a small group of people meeting outside, masked and socially-distanced … that is a manageable risk in many people’s minds. We’re looking into what we can host and how we can offer some in-person activities as we go forward.

What we do at this point will necessarily be different from what we have been doing in-person all along. (Mark 2:21) “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.” For a while back in the spring I tried hard to keep doing all the things we had been doing – but do them online. I discovered that does not work. We need to find new ways to do these things. We need patchwork garments that will not rend and tear from our simple use.

All of which brings me around to the article we used for our reading this morning and the author’s suggestion that churches need to shift their mindset away from being a physical community with an online presence to becoming a digital community with a physical presence. We need to get a new garment – to carry that metaphor along – instead of patching the old one in the new setting. And I don’t agree. I think Carey Nieuwhof is a very wise preacher and church trend observer I think Nieuwhof is smart and perceptive. But I also think he is wrong on this point.

I resonate with Nieuwhof when he writes that a crisis such as this pandemic “is not just a disruptor, it’s an accelerator.” The seven trends he listed are not wildly new ideas, they are just wildly accelerated ideas. He talked about things like valuing flexibility and agility in our church staff teams during this disruption. That makes a lot of sense to me. He talked about how this pandemic is compounding the long trend we have been on from denominational allegiance, or ‘brand loyalty’ if you will. I think his comments about the trend toward home-based spirituality instead of ‘church-building-based’ spirituality are spot on. We’ve been working on that for a while in our community. I will admit, the only part of his predictions I did not agree with is the part I had our Worship Associate read to you – that part about needing to become a digital organization with a physical presence.

I mean, obviously, here we are. We are functioning as a digital organization while our physical presence is under renovation! Obviously, we are putting a lot of energy into our website and our capacity for zoom meetings and our digital communications. And obviously we are not going to stop doing those things when we can get back in person. We know now how to offer a live online version of our worship; we are not going to forget how to do it when we are back in our building.

And Nieuwhof is right when he says the digital connection is better for some people, giving greater access to those who are hindered by distance or timing or illness. He’s right on that count. But here is where I think he is off base.

He draws the comparison of retail stores in a mall and retail stores online. He warns that brick-and-mortar businesses are learning that you can’t compete unless you invest deeply in the online digital sales as well. And, the stores that really thrive are the ones the live online primarily. By that comparison, Nieuwhof is saying religious communities need to do the same.

But that is precisely where he loses me. What are we selling? What is this congregation’s product? He is comparing religious communities to businesses that sell books and t-shirts. He’s buying into the idea that religion is basically a transactional experience – an exchange, I’ll give you this much in exchange for that product I value. I’m buying in, I’m just a consumer here. Religious community, many argue and I agree, is not a transactional experience but a transformational one. There is no commodification of your encounter here. Sure, we ask for money, we ask for a financial pledge. That’s probably why it seems transactional. But there is scale of fees for what we are doing together.

What would we be selling? I know that some Christian churches will say their product is dogma, their business is beliefs. To put it crassly, they are in the after-life insurance business. I would argue that is not true for even most Christian churches and it is definitely not true for our Unitarian universalist community.

To lean into that language, we can say our business is relationships. Our product is community. And Nieuwhof is suggesting religious communities shift their efforts to become a digital organization to better sell our product. Yes, there is a version of that available online and in virtual space. Yes, the energy we put out into the universe will always find its way even if we are not all in the same room breathing the same air together.

But the heartbeat of it is in in-person, face-to-face encounters. Our faith community is focused not on beliefs or dogma or the special way to get into heaven. Instead we are focused on being companions with each other on our spiritual journeys. Our mission is centered on actions and experiences we have in community together.

Can we do that online. Yes, mostly, kind of. But not completely.

I am certain this pandemic will leave a lasting mark on our community going forward. We will continue to have online class offerings. We will make sure people can donate money electronically. We will be sure to have videos of our services available on our website. And there will be an easy way to allow people to zoom into activities like committee meetings and classes as we go forward.

And, we will always return to in-person gatherings when possible, where we can touch hands, where we can better read each other’s body language, where we can sit in shared silence together listening to our communal breathing, where we can have eye contact that is not stymied by screens. Because our business is relationships, our product is community.

In short, we will do both. But I am convinced we will always have a need to gather together in person. Human touch is too basic a human need to forgo. And at the same time, we will never stop doing all we can to stay connected to the people who can’t show up physically. It is part of our commitment to be a community together. What works for one will not be the answer for everyone else.

For now, by necessity and compassion, we are online. We keep our connections, but we are not simply holding our collective breath until we can breathe together again. We are forging new connections and building community with every tool we can. That’s what we do. That’s why we are here. And here, we will always be.

In a world without end.

May it be so.

The Heron and the Despair (2)

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The Heron and the Despair

Rev. Douglas Taylor

August 16, 2020

In the Qur’an it is written:

Behold!  In the creation of the heavens and the earth;

In the alternation of the Night and the Day …

In the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth …

[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise. (2.164)

All the world over, in scripture and in poetry through the ages, people proclaim not only how good the earth is and how blessed but also how we can learn from it.  “[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise.”  In various scripture we see reference to the natural world not only as a place to uncover lessons for living, but also as a wilderness that will test us.  Nature is sometimes cast as the place of temptation or a place where we get lost.  Nature is also presented in fairy tales as a dangerous place yet also a place where we must go to grow up.  The mountain top, the desert, the woods and the wilderness each carry a metaphoric or mythic tone that the actual natural locations can truly convey.

I have always loved nature, and growing up I spent a lot of time out in the woods.  My woods were not dangerous or challenging, however.  My woods were a source of centering and healing. 

I grew up among the glacier carved hills just south of Rochester NY, in a place called Bushnell’s Basin.  Across the street from my house the neighbor’s back yard dropped down several dozen feet to a broad lowland of trees and clearings that we called The Flats. Every spring and fall the Flats would become a maze of flooded creeks and overgrown puddles. The land was not useful for development and so was left to go wild with trees and shrubs, left to grow wild for the imagination and exploration of children. Once I was old enough to be outside on my own, I spent nearly every nice afternoon down in the woods.

In Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman describes how it sometimes felt for me.  He writes:

THERE was a child went forth every day;  And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.  

There is something about the words of poets like Whitman that can capture and articulate my spiritual yearning in ways no theology or dogma can grasp.  Unitarian minister and activist John Haynes Holmes writes:

Nothing any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me very much, but everything that the poets have written about flowers, and birds, and skies, and seas and the saviors of the race, and God – whoever God may be – has at one time or another reached my soul.

For me, finding the writings of Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold, Walt Whitman and Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver and Chief Seattle, has led me to a deeper understanding of my spirit.  Naturalists, poets, and great orators through the ages help me to articulate and integrate my experiences of the natural world and the rumblings within my own soul.  Yes, the words are often about flowers and birds and sky and sea, but they are also about my spirit and about God and about life lived with a fullness.

THERE was a child went forth every day;  And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.  

Those woods around my house became an indelible part of my soul for stretching cycles of years.  What have you looked upon?  What has held your attention and therefore defined some of who you are?  What do you feed your soul?  Or, what do you feed your soul when you have too much of the world?  For me, as a child, it was mostly the Flats.  It feels like I spent years down there, like it was an extension of my own home, like it was a second home.  When things were chaotic at home – or more often just empty at home – I would go out to the woods.  I was having a share of the chaos imprinted on my soul, and the emptiness.  It was good for me to also have a base of nature imprinted there as well.

I don’t want to paint my home life growing up as all bad.  There were moments; but I think over all I am a fairly typical ‘adult child of an alcoholic household.’  Time spent in nature became my spiritual touchstone. 

From time to time as a congregation we host conversations about how to handle difficult times.  Our discussion went into specifics, “What do you do when you are in the midst of the hard times? What helps?”  Well, if we give theologians the day off and let only the poets and naturalists speak, I think Wendell Berry’s poem about the heron and the despair gets as close as possible for me. 

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I do that from time to time.  I wake at night worrying, fearful of the trouble and danger in the world, concern for ‘what my life and my children’s lives may be.’  I worry some nights about the world my children are growing up in.  For me, as is implied in Berry’s poem, the extra concern for the lives of my children is something that puts it over the edge for me into the realm of despair.  I had despair for the world growing in me before I had children, don’t get me wrong.  And I don’t think people without children don’t understand or experience this sort of anxiety and heartache.  But for me, it was having children that raised my worry to a level that included others.  It became about more than just my own private fears and concerns. 

Because ultimately what I’m talking about, what I think Wendell Berry is talking about is bigger that the fear for my life and what my children’s lives may be.  It’s about the world and what’s gone wrong.  Dealing with greed and injustice, heartbreak and cruelty is hard enough.  Helping my children learn to deal with it too is that much harder.  And as an outgrowth of that, my concern grows beyond myself and my children to include all people around me that I care about.  I want to make the world a better place for everyone I care about, and I also want to strengthen everyone I care about to be better able to get through the hard times. 

So Wendell Berry feels this too, and what does he do? He says:

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests

in his beauty on the water,

and the great heron feeds.

I remember doing that as well.  I didn’t have herons and drakes there in the Flats.  But I remember going out to those woods around my house when I was old enough to think of it as ‘communing’ with nature. I would go with the express purpose of calming down and getting grounded.  I did find wood drakes and loons, though, in the Stillwater lakes around Camp Unirondack.  And the heron … I’ve probably told the story a dozen times of the time I was up at Unirondack as a young man, sitting on the dock in the early morning when a heron flew onto the lake and nearly settled on that same dock where I sat meditating.  It glided past me less than a foot from my shoulder while I sat breathless.  I could see the blue feathers, the curve of its neck, the black of its eye as it swept silently past me and sailed low over the water back across the lake away from me and out of sight.

Even just remembering the experience brings to mind the profound feelings I had of connectedness and peace in that moment.  Annie Dillard, after experiencing something like that with a tree of lights wrote, “I had been all my life a bell, and never knew it until that moment I was lifted and struck.” (from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) I think I have spent a good portion of my life since that encounter stopping at lakes and looking for birds and listening to the ringing in my soul.

What is it about such experiences that change them from seeing another bird as you go through your day to seeing through to the depth of living?  Perhaps it is simply an openness on our parts that might fit any moment that can slip in and crack us open all the way.

This morning outside I stood

And saw a little red-winged bird

Shining like a burning bush

Singing like a scripture verse

It made me want to bow my head

I remember when church let out

How things have changed since then

Everything holy now

I have had a handful of encounters like that which have changed me, transformed me, or deepened my sense of the world and my place in the world.  Peter Mayer’s song says it so beautifully.  I do see that everything is holy now. 

And I want to talk about God in everything; but the word ‘God,’ on the tongues of too many people, is too small a word for what I need it to mean. So for today, let the theologians hush while the poets speak of grace and suffering, beauty and despair.  Let the poets tell us something of what this experience has meant: the peace, the presence, the abiding sense of place that I find with the heron in the face of despair. 

Despair is an isolating experience.  Misery and worry turn me inward, cutting me off from my otherwise natural resources.  Experiences I carry in my heart of being in nature open me up, open me outward, open me to my connectedness. Wendell Berry’s poem says

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. 

I come into the presence of still water. 

I come into the presence of that stillness and that stillness calms my soul.

Whenever I am on Retreat – a ministers’ retreat or a writers’ retreat – I make an effort to go out and find a wild place.  Usually this means woods and lakes where I can wander around.  I remember a retreat from a few years back that was in Florida on the Gulf Coast. I was unsure what to do with beaches and the big expanse of ocean or gulf.  My spirit has always been well nourished by green branches and big hills, rambling creeks and still water.  Wendell Berry’s poem talks of coming into the presence of still water.  But as I stood on the beach with that wide open, ever-rolling water, that expansive, breathing water that is never still – I discovered that my spirit is nourished by water in motion as well as the still water.

The peace and calm that carries me through my trouble and drains my despair of its power, that peace is not simply the peace of still water and the memories of quiet, idyllic nature.  The real power of such experiences is in tapping into the rhythm of life itself.  It’s not the stillness, though it can feel that way for me at times.  It is not the stillness; it is instead the even rhythm.  The motion and the stillness belong to each other, the song and the silence together.

This is the lesson I learn from the natural world.  It is not the only lesson it has to offer.  But it is the healing one I learned to trust as a child.  Where have you gone for healing and renewal?  Your spirit needs nourishment, what do you feed yourself of beauty and love?  Where do you turn when worry and despair creep too close to your heart?  Wendell Berry goes to where the heron feeds; he goes into the presence of still water.  “And I feel above me the day-blind stars,” he writes, “waiting with their light.”

What an illuminating metaphor, “the day-blind stars.”  What guides do you seek out that are normally hidden?  The stars are here all day long, shining their light, hidden by the brilliance of the sun.  A life of the spirit can be like that too, present within you all the time though hidden within the ordinariness of living. What do you do to rediscover your center?

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests

in his beauty on the water,

and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. 

I come into the presence of still water. 

And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Grace.  I rest in the grace of the world.  I need more grace in my life.  Let all those simple meanings of the word pour over you when you hear this line: grace as the unearned love of God, grace as the gracefulness of a dancer, grace as the gratitude offered before a meal, grace as the extra time offered beyond what is expected, grace as a gift.  For a time I rest in the grace, the extra time, the gratitude, the elegant dancing movement.  I rest in the grace of the world. 

When I rediscover my center, I rest in the grace of the world.  When I feed my spirit on beauty, I rest in the grace of the world.  When I find healing and renewal then I rest in the gratitude, the elegant movement, the extra time, the gift – of the world, and am free.  When despair for the world grows in me I know what I can do to be free.  It is not fail-proof, but it works often enough to be nearly so. 

All the world over, in scripture and in poetry through the ages, people have proclaimed not only how good the earth is and how blessed but also how we can learn from it.  “[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise.”  Take the time to step aside to rediscover your center. 

Perhaps for you as it is for me, there is grace to be found down by the still water where the wood drake rests in his beauty and the great heron feeds.  Perhaps for you as it is for me, there is memory and poetry and calm to be found just a breath away from the turmoil of the day.  Perhaps when despair comes creeping into your heart, and fear for what your life and the lives of those you love may be, there is yet a way for you to let the fear slip by and the despair to leak all its power away because you have found the way back into the woods where your spirit is nourished and your heart is healed and you can rest for a time in the elegant movement of life, and be free.

In a world without end,

May it be so