Soul Stories – I love a good story. Many stories have nourished my soul. Not all of them are profound or necessarily spiritual, although many are. This morning let me share a sampling of the better stories that have aided me in my journey. (Note: The manuscript has one version of the stories. But in the video, I share the stories differently because I was not reading them, I was telling them.)
Pre-story “The Fable of the Eagle in the Chicken Yard”
A fable is told about an eagle that thought he was a chicken. When the eagle was very small, he fell from the safety of his nest. A chicken farmer found the eagle, brought him to the farm, and raised him in a chicken coop among his many chickens. The eagle grew up doing what chickens do, living like a chicken, and believing he was a chicken.
A naturalist came to the chicken farm to see if what he had heard about an eagle acting like a chicken was really true. He knew that an eagle is king of the sky. He was surprised to see the eagle strutting around the chicken coop, pecking at the ground, and acting very much like a chicken. The farmer explained to the naturalist that this bird was no longer an eagle. He was now a chicken because he had been trained to be a chicken and he believed that he was a chicken.
The naturalist knew there was more to this great bird than his actions showed as he “pretended” to be a chicken. He was born an eagle and had the heart of an eagle, and nothing could change that. The man lifted the eagle onto the fence surrounding the chicken coop and said, “Eagle, thou art an eagle. Stretch forth thy wings and fly.” The eagle moved slightly, only to look at the man; then he glanced down at his home among the chickens in the chicken coop where he was comfortable. He jumped off the fence and continued doing what chickens do. The farmer was satisfied. “I told you it was a chicken,” he said.
The naturalist returned the next day and tried again to convince the farmer and the eagle that the eagle was born for something greater. He took the eagle to the top of the farmhouse and spoke to him: “Eagle, thou art an eagle. Thou dost belong to the sky and not to the earth. Stretch forth thy wings and fly.” The large bird looked at the man, then again down into the
chicken coop. He jumped from the man’s arm onto the roof of the farmhouse.
Knowing what eagles are really about, the naturalist asked the farmer to let him try one more time. He would return the next day and prove that this bird was an eagle. The farmer, convinced otherwise, said, “It is a chicken.”
The naturalist returned the next morning to the chicken farm and took the eagle and the farmer some distance away to the foot of a high mountain. They could not see the farm nor the chicken coop from this new setting. The man held the eagle on his arm and pointed high into the sky where the bright sun was beckoning above. He spoke: “Eagle, thou art an eagle! Thou dost belong to the sky and not to the earth. Stretch forth thy wings and fly.” This time the eagle stared skyward into the bright sun, straightened his large body, and stretched his massive wings. His wings moved, slowly at first, then surely and powerfully. With the mighty screech of an eagle, he flew.
(In Walk Tall, You’re A Daughter Of God, by Jamie Glenn)
Story #1 The Telescope Stone by Rev. Douglas Taylor
I remember one time when I was a teenager sitting alone in the woods. I had a free afternoon and nothing better to do, so I sat on the ground in the woods. I was staring at a stone. I suppose I had recently had science lessons about atomic structures because I started thinking about the small parts of the stone that go into making it a stone. I stared at the stone and thought about how it was made up of smaller parts that are in turn made up of even smaller parts. How far down does it go? What is the smallest part made of?
As I thought of little electrons swirling around a nucleus, my perspective suddenly shifted, it telescoped out from the very small to the very large. Atoms became planets. I reeled with the awareness that the subatomic particles and swirling galaxies of another universe were the same thing. For a brief moment I and the whole universe swirled inside that stone. Everything was connected. Inside that instant the stone and I and ten thousand universes were the same thing.
And then it was over, in less space than a breath it was finished because I noticed myself. I thought, “Hey, I’m having a really profound thought.” And suddenly it was over, my parietal lobe turned back on, the universe fell back into place, and I was simply sitting alone in the woods staring at a stone. Try as I might I could not get the stone to do that trick again.
Story #2 The Homeless Man in Church (anonymous)
The story begins in a simple New England white-clapboard church. The minister was mid-way through the reading of the text when people in the back noticed a disheveled man walking up the aisle. He was not someone who had been there before. He had the look of a homeless person, unwashed and unpleasant. The people in the pews could smell him before they saw him. And people would lean a little, or move their bags up onto the pew making it clear to the man as he looked around the seats on his way up the aisle: “don’t sit here,” “there’s no room for you in this pew.” The homeless man made it all the way up to the front pew without finding a space to sit. With a shrug, he walked a few steps in front of the first pew and settled himself down on the floor in front of the pulpit.
The minister had noticed him by now, having reached the conclusion of the reading and looking up to see everyone’s attention was fixed on the homeless man as he sat on the floor in the front. The minister noticed the head usher making his way down the aisle and knowing the situation would soon be in hand, he launched into the pastoral prayer. Other people also notice the respected elder of the church who served as head usher coming down the aisle. He moved slowly and with great purpose, leaning heavily on his cane as he walked. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as they saw the old pillar of the community coming forward. He would deal with the homeless man; he would kindly but firmly escort the man out.
When the elder arrived at the front of the church he promptly dropped his cane onto the floor and to everyone’s great surprise and chagrin, they watched as he slowly lowered his stiff old form down onto the floor to sit with the other man. The minister had stopped his prayer mid-sentence. An awed silence filled the room.
After a moment the minister spoke with wisdom and humility saying, “All of you here will quite likely not remember a word of the prepared remarks I am about to offer. But every one of you will remember for the rest of your lives the example of compassion and hospitality we have just witnessed.”
Story # 3 The Humming Planet by Joshua Searle-White
Astronaut Annie was lost. Definitely lost. She had been in her spaceship, coming back from a meeting on the planet Baldon, when she had run into this huge space storm, and it blew her way off course. By the time she had gotten control of the spaceship again and gotten everything back together, she had no idea where she was or how to get back to Earth.
“Well, now what?”, she said to herself. “I guess I’d better ask for directions.” So she looked in her space radar, and sure enough, there was a planet not too far away. She headed for it, came in through the atmosphere, found a flat place, and landed her ship gently on the ground. She stood up and pushed the button to open the spaceship door.
And when the door opened, she was greeted with a beautiful sight. She was in some kind of a garden, on a lawn of green grass, with purple and red flowers growing all over and a thick forest nearby. It was pretty much like Earth, but somehow the colors were just a little bit … brighter. But when she stepped out of the ship onto the grass, she had the strangest experience. From somewhere out there, she heard … a soft, humming sound. (hmmm … ) Not really a song, more like … like … like velvet hands holding her. Like a warm soft blanket wrapped around her. Like a sweet taste in the air. And there was just a hint of it everywhere, coming from everything – from the flowers, from the trees, from the grass, and even from the wind rustling in the trees. And even stranger, it seemed to change as she moved around, sometimes louder and sometimes softer, depending on where she moved and what she was looking at. It was almost like it was alive. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard, and she wanted to hear it more and more and more.
Annie saw a path heading out of the garden, and so she decided to take it and see if she could find someone who could give her directions for how to get home. She walked down the path, through the trees, and then into a small town, all the while accompanied by just a faint trace of the hum. When she walked into the town, she saw crowds and crowds of people, walking, going into and out of stores, going home after the day’s work. And as she walked into the crowds, she noticed something strange. The humming came from the people, too! She could hear it as they passed by, as they talked, as they looked at and helped and thought about each other, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, sometimes changing its tune, sometimes disappearing into the air. They weren’t actually humming, but the sound somehow came from inside them.
Well, Annie saw that among all of the rushing people there was one man, standing next to a store window looking at something on the ground. Annie walked over to him to ask him about where to find directions home. She tapped him on the shoulder, but when he looked up at her, she gasped. He had only one eye, and his face looked kind of twisted, as though had had some kind of terrible injury. The man said, “Yes, may I help you?”, but Annie was so scared by how he looked that she turned away from him without saying anything and began to walk away.
But you know what? As she began to go away from him, the music stopped. And so Annie also stopped, startled at the silence. She’d gotten used to the beautiful hum, and now it was gone! And she turned back towards the man, and as she looked at him, injured face and all, the humming started again. She looked at him and moved closer to him, and the humming became even louder, and as she walked up to him again, she heard it even more clearly than she had ever heard it before. And this time, it was coming from someplace inside her!
She was still afraid of him, because of how he looked, but she loved to hear that music, and so she walked back up to him, and looked at him, and apologized for running away, and asked him how she could find out how to get home. He told her very kindly about a building where there were people who could help her, and she thanked him and went on, all the while with that humming soaring inside her. It was a great feeling, a feeling she had never had before. It was a very strange experience, but the more she walked, the more she could hear the song in herself, when she looked at other people, smiled at them, didn’t turn away and run or hide from people. And the song ebbed and flowed, and twisted and turned, almost as if it were alive, almost as if she were dancing with it. And when at one point she tripped and almost fell over a curb, and some people caught her so she didn’t fall, she heard the song from their hearts, and the song came from her in response, and … and even from the trees, and the buildings, and the sidewalks the song came in response, all flowing together in an intricate and beautiful harmony.
Well, she finally arrived at the building that the old man had told her about, and sure enough, in there they had star maps and computers and telescopes and stuff, and they told her where she was and how to get back to earth. And so she walked back through the town, through the woods, and into the garden, and back to her ship. All the while that humming sang to her, mostly quietly, but sometimes with new melodies and harmonies, until she finally stood at the doorway back into her ship. She turned and looked out at the garden, and for a moment, she really, really, really did not want to go home. She had never felt anything like what that humming made her feel; she had never heard a song so alive, so embracing, and it was like it was calling her to stay. But then she thought of her home, and her family, and all the things he knew back on earth, and she knew she had to leave. So she went into the spaceship, closed the door, and took off back into space.
And she flew through space for a couple of days, and then sure enough, she found Earth right where it should be. She orbited the planet once, found the place where she lived, came down through the atmosphere, and landed, right back in her own country, in her own town, in her own backyard. As the ship settled down, she had a mix of feelings – she was really happy to be home, but she still felt a little sadness at leaving the Humming Planet. And once the ship was down, she stood up, and she pushed the button to open the door, and it opened, and she saw all the familiar sights and sounds of her home – the backyard with some trees, some spring flowers growing, and best of all, her family running out of the house shouting “Annie’s back! Annie’s back!” But as she stepped out of the spaceship, she had the strangest experience. From somewhere out here, she heard … a soft, humming sound. Not really a song, more like … like … like velvet hands holding her. Like a warm soft blanket wrapped around her. Like a sweet taste in the air. And it was coming from everywhere, from the grass, and the trees, and the flowers, and from her family, and … and … and from inside herself, too. How could this be? This wasn’t the Humming Planet! And as she stepped out, and hugged her family, and said hello to her friends, and went about being home again, that song was there, in her and in others and from all around, whenever they loved, helped, and lived.
Maybe Earth is the Humming Planet, after all.
Story #4 John Muir and the Wind Storm
John Muir, some of you may know, was the great naturalist from the late 1800’s. He is the “Father of our National Parks” and founder of the Sierra Club. He was also a bit of a thrill seeker. He loved to really get out into nature and experience it as fully as possible. He would climb trees, scramble up rocky inclines, and he got out in all manner of weather to experience nature. I offer remarks from his own journal to reveal this teaching story.
“One of the most beautiful and exhilarating storms I ever enjoyed in the Sierra,” Muir wrote in A Wind-Storm in the Forests, “occurred in December, 1874, when I happened to be exploring one of the tributary valleys of the Yuba River.”
He was on his way to visit a friend that day, but when he noticed a fine wind-storm brewing he decided to instead push out into the woods to enjoy it. I don’t know about you, but when I see a wind storm coming, I like to have some shelter. John Muir was led by a different impulse. “For on such occasions (he wrote) Nature has always something rare to show us, and the danger to life and limb is hardly greater than one would experience crouching deprecatingly beneath a roof.” After spending a good while walking around the woods in the midst of this great windstorm it occurred to him “that it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook.”
So he hunted for a good choice. He found a stand of tall Douglas Spruces growing close together. He knew that the wind was strong enough to uproot a single tree standing alone, but a dozen or more trees together served to protect all the trees in the copse.
“Though comparatively young, (he writes in his journal) they were about 100 feet high, and their lithe, brushy tops were rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy. Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion.”
He clung to the high slender tree as it bent and swirled in the storm. The tree bent from 20 to 30 degrees in arc but he trusted the companion stand around him to keep his tree rooted and upright throughout the experience. He describes it as exciting and beautiful. He felt the wind in his pulse. He described light and wind sweeping across the valley spread before his eyes as if he were watching waves on the open sea; the trees undulating and swaying in concentric circles, lines of wind chasing each other in a water-like flow from one end of valley to the other. “I kept my lofty perch for hours, (he writes) frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music by itself, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was streaming past.”
This experience was a seminal moment for Muir’s sense of connectedness with all nature. “We all travel the milky way together,” he wrote, “trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings–many of them not so much.”
Story #5 Angry Nails (anonymous)
There a story of a boy who had a hard time controlling his anger. He would often lash out when he was angry. Finally, his mother told him that every time he lashed out in anger he should go out to the back yard and pound a nail into the fence. During the first few days, the boy was out in the back yard pounding nails several times a day. Over time, the boy went to the fence less often. Then the boy went an entire day without going out to the fence to pound in a nail.
The boy said this to his mother who replied, “Now every time you control your anger and do not lash out I want you to go out and remove one of your nails from then fence.” And this the boy did. Sometimes he would still pound a nail in, but more often he removed nails.
Eventually there came a day when the boy had not pounded a new nail into the fence in weeks, and he had removed all the nails from his earlier visits. His mother then took him out to the fence and said, “I am proud of you, you have learned to control your anger. I want you to remember, however, that although you have removed the nails you had pounded into the fence, the holes from those nails are still there in the wood. You cannot take those away. You can always remove a nail that you have pounded into the fence but you can never remove the hole that you make with the nail.”
“So it is when you lash out with your anger,” his mother continued. “You can apologize and be forgiven, but the damage you cause will always remain, at least in some fashion. It is good to apologize, better to not need to. But you will need to. No one can move through this life without creating a few nail holes.”
Story #6 Did You Find Any Pieces Today? by Rev. Douglas Taylor
When Mariam was a child, her favorite thing was when her grandfather would visit and tell her stories at bedtime. They lived nearby and so she was able to get a bedtime story from him at least once a week. She loved to hear his stories. And her favorite was the story about the shattered vessels.
“It is my favorite as well,” he would always say. And then he would tell her, “There are many versions of how the world came to be. But the best one is Tikkun Olam because we get to take part. At the beginning, God created Love, and there was so much Love it filled ten large vessels. And God sent those vessels to the world. But the Love was so powerful and so much, that it could not be contained by the vessels. The Love burst the vessels, it shattered them. The Love broke into many pieces and was scattered all over creation, all over the world.”
“And it is our job to find all the pieces?” Miriam would ask.
Her grandfather would smile and nod, “Yes Miriam. That is our part in creation, we need to gather all the scattered pieces and bring them back together to repair the world.”
And then he would lean closer to her and ask, “And did you find any pieces today?”
She always had an answer for him. When she was five, there was always a sparkly rock or a beautiful sunset she would mention to him. On this day, she said, “I found a very pretty feather today.”
“A feather?” he would say, impressed. “Tell me about it.” And she would.
One time she asked, “Grandfather, I have figured this out, right? It’s like a big hide and seek game, and I need to find all the bright and beautiful pieces and collect them.”
Her grandfather would smile down at her adoringly. “Maybe,” he would say with a shrug. “It is a mystery. We tell the story and we ask our questions. It’s good.”
That was when she was five. Later when she was twelve, she had found a different answer. She still loved that story. She still asked for that one as often as any other story each week. He would tell her about the Love and the shattering vessels and the scattering of the pieces. And he would ask, “Did you find any pieces today?”
As a mature twelve-year-old, she was proud to tell him. “I have figured it out, grandfather. I used to think the pieces were pretty things, like glitter that had exploded all over everything. But now I know it is not about finding shiny rocks. It’s about love. Isn’t that right grandfather?”
“Love?” He said, smiling at her. “Maybe,” he would say with a shrug. “It is a mystery. We tell the story and we ask our questions. It’s good.” And then he asked, “Tell me more about the Love you have found this week.”
And she would. She would tell him about how she loved her parents and how she loved him and grandmother, and on and on.
Later, when she was in high school, he would still come over sometimes and they would talk. Sometimes she would ask him to tell the story of Tikkun Olam – even though she was too old for bedtime stories. He would tell her and he would ask “Did you find any pieces today?”
And she would tell him about kindness she had given or received. About a boy who helped her figure out the answer to a homework problem, or the time she helped a stranger who had fallen in the grocery store. She said, “I think it is silly that I used to think the pieces of God’s love were shiny rocks. And it is embarrassing that I thought it was about something as mushy as love. It must be about kindness. Do I have it right this time grandfather?”
And he would smile and shrug, “Maybe. Tell me more about the kindness you found this week.”
The years went on and Miriam grew older. She fell in love and got married. She asked her grandfather to tell her favorite story at the wedding – which everyone loved.
A few years after that, when she was in her early-twenties, her grandfather grew ill and went to the nursing home. She visited him every week and he would ask her to tell him stories. Which she did. She would tell him her favorite story about Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. And he would ask her, “Did you find any pieces today?”
One day when he asked that of her, she was quiet for a while, thinking. She said, “Grandfather, I think I finally get it. The pieces are not just beautiful, shiny things. But they are not love or kindness either. It’s all of it. All of it together. Isn’t that right?” she asked.
He smiled up at her adoringly and shrugged. “Maybe. It is a mystery. We tell the story and we ask our questions. It is good.”
And so her life went on. She had a career helping people in her way. She and her spouse had a child together and she told her child the story. And each day, she would find a few piece; she would look for beauty and show it to others; she would make her life and the lives of people around her better; she would repair the world.
Where Do We Go When We Die?
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Special Music just before the sermon: Billy Joel’s Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcnd55tLCv8&ab_channel=billyjoelVEVO
It is, I trust, an iconic image for us, easy to call to mind. The singer is at the bedside of their young child, singing a lullaby – a calming image of love and care. My spouse and I spent years when our children were young with this nightly ritual of singing them to sleep with lullabies. It is a beloved memory for me.
Today is Mother’s Day – the day we celebrate and honor mothers. I would offer a slight nuance to my focus under that heading – let us honor the nurturing role. Who in your life offered that nurture to you over your younger years? In most cases it will have been your mother. But life is complex. The one who gave you life may not have been the nurturer of your life. Yet we have all had nurturers in our lives or we would not be here.
To some degree on another we all had someone in our lives whose care and love has been woven deep into who we are and who we have become. And that is the experience I invite you to call to mind this morning – the one whose care and love has been woven deep into who you are and who you have become.
A year ago, my mother died and I’ve had time to consider the impact of losing someone who has been deeply important to me, whose loss I am still grieving.
I was reading an article recently https://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/brain-grief/ about grief and the brain. I was struck by the way the author talked about the neural connections in our brains that form when we bond with people the way a baby bonds with their mother. There are changes in our brain when we develop such bonds. When I say, poetically, that we have people whose care and love have been woven into who we are, it seems neuroscience offers a similar description. Such relationships shape our neural pathways. We need nurturers in our lives.
My spouse and I are new grandparents. Our own children are now grown. It has been a while since we sang lullabies to our little ones. And while we are not singing our grandchild to sleep each night, some lullaby singing has returned to our lives. And of course, if I am to speak of lullabies, I must also mention the companion activity at bedtime for children: asking big questions.
Here we are at the end of the day. We’ve had a story and perhaps a small glass of milk, whatever the usual pieces are to the bedtime ritual. And for many it is a time for children to ask big questions. Why is the sky blue? Where do we go when we die? Can I have a pet triceratops? Why does it get light and then dark and then light again? Where do babies come from? Why do we have two eyes and two ears and two nose holes but only one mouth?
Often after fielding a few of these questions, we would gently move into the singing of lullabies.
Goodnight, my angel
Time to close your eyes
And save these questions for another day
Billy Joel has said he wrote the lyrics to this song for his 7-year-old daughter in response to her bedtime questions; in particular, the question: “Where do we go when we die?”
I think it was very astute of Mr. Joel to recognize in that moment the importance of that question, to understand what was really at stake. Where do we go when we die? Last month I delivered a sermon all about heaven and included the various descriptive answers that might arise in talking about heaven: the clouds, the harps, the saints and angels, the theology of being good or being saved – all that. But Billy Joel recognized that what his child was asking for would not have been found in that sermon.
I think I know what
You’ve been asking me
I think you know
What I’ve been trying to say
This question, “Where do we go when we die?” often gets mislabeled as a question about beliefs and faith. Children at bedtime are usually not seeking theology. His daughter asked “Where do we go when we die?” And he answered
Wherever you may go
No matter where you are
I never will be far away
It was never a question about beliefs or heaven. It was a question about love and loss. Where do we go when we die? Where will you go, the child who loves you asks; where will you be when I am left without you and you are gone. (I never will be far away.)
As the parent in the relationship, I want to offer assurance that everything will be alright, that I’ll always be here for my children. I can understand how some parents will say, “Oh, don’t worry about that.” I understand the desire to brush such a question away – even from our adult children, “Don’t worry about that for now.” That dismissiveness is borne of a desire to reassure our children.
But as the child in the relationship, I want to know what I am going to do when my mother has died. I want to know how I am going to keep going when she’s not there as that steady, reliable presence. I want to know how to manage when I am in need of comfort and the one I used to turn to for comfort is gone. I don’t want to be told to not worry. I want to know what will happen to the connection, to the bond between us, to the neural pathways that have grown familiar with your presence.
Did you have conversations like this as the parent or as the child? Can you still have such conversations with the important people in your life? I count myself among the lucky ones in life. I was the child of a woman who did not shy away from such questions. Goodness, that woman would engage unabashedly in topics of sex and death, politics and social issues all day long if we asked her too. As a result, I heard her answers to questions like this, “Where do we go when we die?”
My mother’s answers were about love – God’s love, the love of her parents, that transcendent and transformative power often called God but may be better known as love. Where do we go when we die? We go back to love.
Billy Joel, in an interview from 2016, shared a little more about the experience which led to this song we’ve been focused on. He was putting his child to bed that night and she asked him that question “Where do we go when we die?” Here’s what he said in the interview:
“What I told her was, ‘After you die, you go into other people’s hearts and they take you with them through their lives, and then you pass that along to your children.’ She seemed content with that answer. It was kind of a scary question, but the answer made sense to her.” https://www.songfacts.com/facts/billy-joel/lullabye-goodnight-my-angel
This resonates with me strongly. Frankly I was a little surprised to find that he put it that way, I mean, he is just a singer celebrity! Yet, he so effortlessly produced that answer, an answer I find compelling and nuanced enough for my Process Theology loving brain and for my grief-soaked heart. When we are gone, we are not really gone because we continue in each other’s hearts. That may be what heaven is. I don’t know.
I’ll dip into a little theology here, even though I said earlier that it’s not the point of the question. I’m going to share a little anyway. In process theology, we say the building blocks of reality are not things like atoms and molecules. Instead, it is the events, the happenings that matter most. The interactions of the things create the whole. If you could pick apart a chair, atom by atom, the argument goes, you would end up with a pile of atoms and never find the chair. The chair is about the relationship of the atoms together, it is the interplay of the pieces that make it that chair.
So it is with you and me. I am not merely the atoms currently comprising my body. I am made of the relationships and interactions at the atomic level and at the social level. And I came out of the earth, I grew inside my mother, I was nurtured by her and others over decades. All of that is part of who I am.
For me this is about my mother. But this is not specifically a Mother’s Day sermon, it is a sermon about grappling with the grief and loss of those precious people in our lives whose care and love has been woven deep into who we are and who we have become – and who are not gone. For you that may be a different nurturer. For me it is about my mother. I would not be here if not for her – in so many senses beyond the merely biological logic of it. Her care and love for me has been imbued into my being. She is part of me.
The water’s dark
And deep inside this ancient heart
You’ll always be a part of me
And though she is gone, I carry her with me still and she is not gone. The people we most love and who love us in return are woven into our identities, our being. The interactions and encounters change us and help shape our becoming.
In our story this morning, The Tenth Good Thing about Barney, the father says, “Things change in the ground… The ground changes things.” He was talking about seeds turning into flowers and beloved pets who have died turning into the soil to help grow the plants and trees.
What I am trying to say is that love does the same sort of change work that the ground does. Love takes the relational interactions of my living and transform them into me. And the people who have nurtured me, the one whose care and love has been woven deep into who I am and who I have become, they are part of me. And even when they are gone, they can never really be gone.
Those who have love you and are now gone, are still part of you, are still working their change on you, shaping who you are and who you will become. And even when they are gone, you carry them in your heart and they are not gone.
I carry you in my heart, we say. The neuroscientists say our brains carry the memories of the bond. Process Theology suggests the relational interactions between us help comprise what it means to be me. I carry you in my heart.
Someday your child may cry
And if you sing this lullaby
Then in your heart
There will always be a part of me
To whom do you sing lullabies? In whom will you continue on?
Here (touch heart) is where we go when we die.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Elements of Style
A Sermon (in five chapters with a prologue)
Rev. Douglas Taylor
April 24, 2022
Video Sermon: https://youtu.be/j9HoeHqq1gs
In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditation/meditation-four-directions
In the pagan tradition, which is grounded in a respect and reverence for the natural world, calling upon the four directions is the usual way to begin any ceremony. Each direction is associated with an element of the natural world, and represents some part of our human nature as well. The directions are not seen as separate and isolated, but rather as part of the interdependent system that makes up the world…
When I title my sermon “The Elements of Style,” I am not referring to the classic writing style guide by Strunk and White. I am talking about the elements of earth, air, fire, water, and spirit. The old taxonomy of the four (or five) elements is still informative and can serve to guide our spiritual growth. They can be seen as qualities of being which we can exemplify; traits of our personality, of our living. My title, elements of Style, is meant to evoke how these four elements can be seen as styles of being.
Historically, the concept of four (and sometimes five) elements arises among the ancient Greek philosophers. The concept remained prevalent in Europe up through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Interestingly, there are similar concepts from ancient India and Japan as well, so this is not isolated to the Western worldview. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_element
The conversation I am offering is not an attempt to explain the natural world as they were trying to do in those ancient times. Modern chemistry offers far more than four or five basic elements to understand the natural world. The Periodic Table of Elements is more accurate and helpful in that endeavor. I, on the other hand, am looking inward.
Perhaps a better parallel in our modern understanding is to link the four elements of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth to what we know about the states of matter: Solid, Liquid, Gas, and Plasma. Not only is this a fair parallel to see earth as akin to solid, water to liquid, air to gas, and fire to plasma – it is also a fair parallel in that it helps us shift from thinking of these four elements as things to thinking of them as styles of being. It is not that you are fire, it’s that you can be like fire.
Chapter One: Air “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)
In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:
We begin in the East, toward the rising sun. …Air and breath give us life. It is the direction of inspiration – the word that literally means to take in air. The east is associated with the mind, with knowledge and learning and intellectual curiosity. … Turning toward the east, we look for a fresh start, an invigorating breath, a new idea. When you are feeling stuck in a rut, beholden to a routine, or if the wind has gone out of your sails, look eastward.
I invite you to call to mind birds in flight. This is the image many associate with this element. Indeed, Starhawk suggests specifically a crow, in part because of their intelligence (from Starhawk’s Truth or Dare.) Air is the element of inspiration and vision and curiosity. Such virtues are among our central values as a faith tradition. Air is often a step removed from the fray, it is the realm of calm observation and focus.
You may want to approach this from a personal perspective, considering how you have the qualities of air in your life. But I wonder if we can think of this communally. Does our congregation have enough air? Or maybe you’ll call to mind other communities and circles in your life. What does that look like for a group to have enough air?
The quadrant of air strongly associated with the mind. It is about new ideas, fresh plans that help us live out our vision. Working from the perspective of air is about taking the long view, seeing the whole forest, the whole system, instead of just the individual trees as they say.
Are you a visionary? Do you see the way things fit? Do you imagine solutions to possible problems? The details are elsewhere on the wheel – air is big picture work. Air is about observing and understanding what is going on. Maybe step back a pace and take it all in. Air is the quality in our lives by which we can focus on remaining true to our primary purpose and goal. And then making a plan to move forward!
Be like air: Observe, breath, focus, decide.
Chapter Two: Fire “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)
In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:
We move around the wheel to the south. The element of the south is fire, …Fire is a transformative force, it is heat and light and powerful change. In the Northern Hemisphere, it makes sense that we associate the south, towards the equator, with the warmth of the sun and the heat of the flame. … When our internal weather gets cold, turning south is a metaphor for turning toward warmth and daylight, seeking out the changes that will warm us up, get our blood moving, call us out of our winters, out of hibernation, into action.
Every Sunday morning and at many gatherings for classes and meetings we Unitarian Universalists will light a chalice. We are regularly reminded of the ‘light of truth, the warmth of compassion, and the fire of commitment.’ Call to mind the dancing flame in our chalice. Or perhaps the mythos surrounding the phoenix – the bird that burns up and is then reborn. Fire is the element of change and action and transformation.
Fire is sometimes cast as a dangerous force, even destructive. All the elements can be, but fire by its nature consumes things, feeds on what is and turns it to ash. But as an element of our inner lives, it is more accurately a force for change. It is energy and excitement, passion for action. It is not negative. It is perhaps fair to say it is a force that burns away what has been, but in so doing it allows something new to arise, transformed
Is there enough fire in our congregation? I imagine there are some individuals in our lives whom we see as ‘fiery personalities.’ Some of you may be those people! But my question is less about individuals and more about the community. We all have the capacity to be like fire. Is there enough fire in our community?
An obvious way this would show up is in our justice work. I have said several times lately that our justice work has been flattened by this pandemic and we are now working to stoke that fire back into the strong blaze we are used to seeing among us.
But there are other ways we can talk about the fire aspect in our congregation. The quadrant of fire is about our energy. Where is our energy at this time? What are we excited about together? As we keep pivoting and shifting with the gathering policy and our online presence and hosting in-person activities again – we are building up our fires. We are building up our energy. Can you feel that happening? The fires of our congregation need tending at this time, but they are still there.
Be like fire: Burn, tame, adapt, ignite
Chapter Three: Water “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)
In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:
Continuing around the circle, we arrive in the west. The element of the west is water, … In the west, we are drawn into the experience of our emotions. It is a direction that calls us to self-reflection and self-understanding. Our emotions move in us like water, flowing through our lives, sometimes calm and sometimes turbulent, but always flowing. …If you are seeking to get in touch with your inner life, with your emotions, turn towards the west.
Starhawk suggests the image of a snake to embody this element. Water is about the undercurrents, the unspoken understandings at play in our lives. The snake archetype shows up in many places religiously and culturally – some of those still connect to the way Starhawk is talking about and some do not.
Water is the element of feelings and reflection and healing. Feelings are powerful and often ignored or undervalued. There a patronizing way some have of dismissing the feelings of others and usually their own feelings as well. It is not healthy or helpful to do that. Like a snake, it may circle back and bite you when you least expect it.
But even though our feelings may be dismissed and undervalued, they are very important. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Taking the time to reflect on this will lead us to greater wholeness.
Is there enough water in our congregation? When you think about the places of good water in your life, I do hope this congregation is one such place for you. We talk a lot about covenant here. We work at being clear with our communication and addressing conflict when it arises. My sermons often carry some emotionally honest elements. And have I mentioned the value of brokenness lately? As we work to build up our fires, it is valuable to stay balanced with our water as well.
Be like water: Cry, cleanse, flow, let go.
Chapter Four: Earth “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)
In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:
We move now to the North. The element of the North is earth, …There is stability here, the ground of our being. The north represents the place that holds us, that allows us time and space to heal and grow, to feel nurtured and respected… The north calls to you if you are seeking balance, the deep wisdom that lives in your bones, a place of rest and recovery.
For an image of earth, Starhawk named this element for the dragon. She named it for a guardian of our greatest treasure, a protector of what is most important. Dragons in myth tend to be ancient and wise. Earth is the element of strength and protection and wisdom.
The aspect of earth in your life is about being grounded and practical and realistic. Earth is about protecting and conserving the resources and energy. Earth holds the boundaries and reminds us of our limits. Earth offers the details that counter the lofty goals of air. When air builds castles in the clouds, earth tethers those dreams into a living reality.
Is there enough earth in our congregation? Is there enough earth in your life? It sometimes feels to me like a little more earth is the antidote to so much of what is off in my life and in our congregation and certainly in society. It is about being grounded. Yes, the aspect of earth is focused on details and resources and limitations, but it also asks important questions: Is our work sustainable? How can we better nurture each other? What concrete skills and resource do we have to offer? What can we build? How can we do this better for everyone involved?
Be like earth: Ground, give, build, heal.
Chapter Five: Spirit “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)
In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:
We have moved through these four directions, given them shape and meaning:
East: Air, breath and inspiration.
South: Fire, transformation and action.
West: Water, feeling and reflection.
North: Earth, balance and wisdom.
Adding a fifth element is not a wild, new idea. Aristotle suggested it was aether – which he defined as whatever the heavenly stars are made of, because they surely were not made of earth, air, fire, or water. The Vedas from India also talked about a fifth aspect which translates closer to ‘void.’ I am evoking a fifth along the lines of how modern neo-pagans speak of it: Spirit.
Spirit is the element of wholeness and integration. It is about the connections, interconnections, and the in-between aspects of our living. It is the threads that bind us. It is our common heart. The classic four elements became associated with the four cardinal directions. Spirit is associated with right here, the center.
Is there enough spirit in our congregation? This is a question of balance. We might ask if each of the other elements are present and thriving. But this question of the balance found in spirit that is akin to the idea of the whole being more than the sum of the parts.
It is a question of connection. Are you connected? Are we connected? Are we listening to each other? How will you pour your gifts into this community – as earth or air, as fire or water? Where are your gifts? Was there one element or maybe two that you felt drawn to as I described them? What will you bring forth?
How is it with our spirit? The element of spirit is about connection. I know I have felt isolated and fragmented since the onset of this pandemic, but in truth we’ve long lived in a fragmenting and disconnected society.
A deep part of our work as a congregation has been to counter that destructive trend around and within us. Here, in spirit, we work to honor our differences and to strengthen our bonds, to nourish our common heart. Now, more than ever, this is our work as a faith. To honor our differences and to strengthen our bonds, to nourish our common heart.
Be like spirit: Connect, listen, know, be still.
In a world without end,
may it be so.
Heaven in Our Hands
Rev. Douglas Taylor
March 27, 2022
Sermon video: https://youtu.be/kgQ9NjPFB0A
We Unitarian Universalists do not spend a lot of time talking about heaven anymore. It used to be a significant talking point. Historically, as we distinguished ourselves from other Protestant Christian denominations a few hundred years ago, we talked about heaven and how to get into heaven quite a bit. The early American Universalists spoke out about God’s love and how we were all God’s children and all of us would be reunited with God in heaven in the end. The early Unitarians spoke of how our deeds and actions were the measure to determine if we were good people and that as good people we would receive our reward in heaven.
Modern Unitarian Universalism is a pluralistic faith with a range of beliefs and practices. The central doctrines of the past are not as important to our identity as they once were. We gather around shared values more than common beliefs today. I contend, however, that our various beliefs and values still point strongly toward an idea like heaven, an idea like love.
I would talk more about love today, but allow me to linger a moment on the topic of heaven as we begin. We all have some ideas about heaven, ideas we may or may not believe yet we recognize all the same. What is heaven? Setting aside the pastoral aspect of that question for now, consider it from a metaphysical framework for moment. What does the concept call to mind for you?
Maybe you think of Heaven as a place. Perhaps the cartoons of people standing on clouds is the image you conjure in your mind. Or maybe you are a traditionalist and think of heaven as a garden, or a kingdom, or a city on a hill. It is possible you think not of a place or location at all. Perhaps you imagine heaven as an activity. Perhaps heaven is about playing a harp or being at rest or a least being free from suffering. Is that what comes to mind for you when you think about heaven?
Maybe the idea of heaven is less specific for you, maybe it is not a place or an activity so much as a sense of reward for being good or being saved. That is certainly in keeping with how people sometimes speak about heaven – as a motivation to behave ethically in this life. Or, consider the way people speak of seeing loved ones in heaven or how loved ones are looking down at us from heaven – this imagines heaven as a relationship more than a location, although location does seem tangled up in there again, doesn’t it. But it is more than a place – it is the place where we are with loved ones again, it is the place where we are with God.
What is heaven? There are differing answers to that question. We are a pluralistic tradition now. There isn’t ONE answer we are expected to nod to and accept. However you think of it – whether you believe in heaven or not – as a place or relationship, as rest or reward, you certainly have some concept in mind when you think about the word.
I suggest, while we Unitarian Universalists do not spend a lot of time talking about heaven, we do spend quite a bit of time talking about something similar. We talk about being good people and helping to make the world a better place. And there is a direct connection between these topics.
A few years back there was a television show about heaven that I found quite interesting. The show was talked about in my colleague circles quite a bit. The Good Place is a 4-season show on one of the online streaming channels. It is funny and clever, certainly irreverent and yet at turns poignant and even profound. If you haven’t watched it, I do recommend it. The premise is this:
Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Kristen Bell, is “welcomed after her death to the Good Place, a highly selective Heaven-like utopia designed and run by afterlife “architect” Michael as a reward for her righteous life. She realizes, however, she was sent there by mistake and must hide her morally imperfect past behavior while trying to become a better, more ethical person.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Good_Place
Early on, in the first episode, Eleanor asks who was right about the afterlife? Michael, the architect, answers her saying “Hindus are a little bit right, Muslims a little bit. Jews, Christians, Buddhists, every religion guessed about 5%” But more interestingly, the show highlights moral philosophy while being entertaining. The show talks about Aristotle, Kant, and Kierkegaard without watering them down. Really the show is about ethics and how to be a better person. Ultimately, it is a depiction of the afterlife as a place of learning.
One of my favorite quotes from the show is this: “What matters isn’t if people are good or bad. What matters is, if they’re trying to be better today than they were yesterday.”
I love it when a conversation about heaven and the afterlife circles around to ethics and how we can help one another become better people in this life. I love that a conversation about heaven can lead us to a conversation about how we can make a heaven of this life we are living even today. Really, when any conversation about beliefs turns toward a conversation about ethics is a good conversation – as we heard in our reading this morning: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/reflection/who-cares That is the heart of what I am lifting up this morning! The image of heaven we UUs evoke today is one of a community rooted in love and justice for all.
Our contemporary Unitarian Universalism reveals a theological challenge for us to live our values of love and inclusion – that heaven is in our hands. As poet June Jorden once said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
Two weeks back, a member of our congregation, Ruth Blizard delivered the sermon and she reminded us:
Many churches today still reject persons of color, require women to submit to men, believe homosexuality is a sin, and contend that only those who believe exactly as they do will be saved. Our tradition of universal salvation offers hope, acceptance and sanctuary to those doomed by other religions.
She went on to clarify key points in our history which have led us to become who we are today – a justice-seeking religion of inclusion for all.
Then one week ago we heard a sermon from my colleague Rev. Craig Schwalenberg. He asked us about the evidence that we are living by these values and beliefs we espouse. He asked how people would know we are Unitarian Universalists from our actions, what is the evidence.
Today I notice the clear line from our historical theology of heaven into our contemporary mission to live our values in the world. We are trying to make this life rich and full and rewarding. We are working to build a just and compassionate society today, to manifest our heaven right here. We’re still a pluralistic community. We still have multiple answers to the question ‘What is heaven?’ and we are trying to build it together now.
Of course, it is hard to build anything at the moment. We are living in the long slow return from the pandemic disruption. Our society is simultaneously post-pandemic and still smack in the midst of the impact. We are picking up some pieces of the old normal and yet hundreds of people still die every day in our country from Covid-19. This is exhausting. And, we are working to manifest our heaven together in the midst of this mess.
The image we put out there, our version of heaven, is one of inclusion, of justice, and of care. As such, over these past two pandemic years, we have sought that balance between keeping people safe and staying in touch with each other; of protecting the most vulnerable among us and also resisting the deadening impact of isolation.
But that’s just the point. We are not waiting to receive a reward, to have a final rest when life is done. We are in it already. This is how it works. There is a line from Thoreau’s Walden in which he writes: “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” (from The Pond in Winter) or as I’ve stated in my sermon title – in our hands.
It is always happening and it will keep happening over and over around us and within us and among us. Ever-unfolding anew each moment. It is not an ending. That’s one of the interesting pieces we offer – it’s not an ending … it is now. Or as Peter Mayer sings about it: “everything is holy now.”
Over the past few months, a handful of us have been in a UU theology class together, reading and discussing the book House of Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker. This has been a multi-congregational offering, co-led by myself, Rev. Darcey Laine of the Athens and Cortland UU congregations and Rev. Jo VonRue of May Memorial UU in Syracuse.
I mention this class for two reasons. First, it is an example of what I’m talking about. Not that this class is an example of heaven. Nothing so grand. Instead, it is a small example of the community we are trying to create; one not confined by the usual limits. In this case, the usual limit of one minister teaching to one congregation.
The second reason is that the text we used offered a chapter about what I’m talking about this morning. In the first chapter, Rebecca Parker wrote about eschatology, the aspect of traditional Christian theology in which we find the topic of heaven. Parker wrote:
Radically realized eschatology … begins with affirming that we are already standing on holy ground. This earth – and none other – is a garden of beauty, a place of life. … Our religious framework can shift from hope for what could be … to hope that what is good will be treated with justice and love and that what has been harmed will be repaired. [House of Hope p 12]
So I say we are in it now. As Parker said, “We are already standing on holy ground.” As Peter Mayer sang, “Everything is holy now.” Even with this pandemic confounding our living. Even with war and oppression, injustice and destruction plaguing our days. Still, we can bring love and hope with us into every situation. Still, we can make this time and this place a little more like heaven; because that is what we do. We are the ones.
(Sing) We are the ones, we are the ones, we’ve been waiting …
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
The vision we put out there, our version of heaven, is one of inclusion, of justice, and of care for all. We have heaven in our hands, at our feet, in our hearts and minds. We can make this place even better. Even now it already is, and with a little effort on our part, it yet can be.
In a world without end
May it be so.