Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, November 25, 2018
All month we’ve been reflecting on gratitude, and lately, given all the struggles people are facing, I’ve found myself feeling grateful, that things aren’t any worse than they are. It’s setting a low bar, I know, but these days, when it can seem like our world is going down the tubes, I’m grateful for the simple gift of a quiet day, a normal day.
Earlier this week there was a column in The New York Times by David Brooks, about the amount of suffering in our society these days. The first sentence says, “Wherever I go I seem to meet people who are either dealing with trauma or helping others dealing with trauma.”
You know this, don’t you? Some of you are on the front lines, in your work as nurses or social workers or teachers, or in your work at places like Emmaus or Ruth’s House or Community Action; I see it here. There is so much brokenness and trauma that people are trying to deal with. Sometimes successfully, and sometimes not.
I find myself wondering: what allows some people to heal from trauma and to lead good and happy lives, in spite of their troubles, while others seem unable to do so? Certainly access to resources is a part of it—whether you have supportive family or friends, and enough access to food and housing and services you need; certainly things like chronic illness, mental or physical, makes life harder, as does substance abuse and addiction problems, which are so prevalent these days.
It that column, David Brooks puts his finger on something that’s true, but not always obvious. He writes, “Our society has tried to medicalize trauma. We call it PTSD and regard it as an individual illness that can be treated with medications. But it’s increasingly clear that trauma is a moral and spiritual issue as much as a psychological or chemical one.”
He continues, “As a culture we’re pretty bad at dealing with moral injury. Sometimes I look at the rising suicide and depression rates, the rising fragility and distrust, and I think it all flows from the fact that we’ve made our culture a spiritual void. When you privatize morality and denude the public square of spiritual content, you’ve robbed people of the community resources they need to process moral pain together.”
He’s not saying that people just need to go back to church. Nor is he saying that a deeper and wider spirituality would negate the need for good medical and psychological treatment. It’s a both/and, not an either/or. But I do appreciate his reminder that our culture has lost something as it’s pushed religion away. With the holiday shopping season now upon us, it’s a good time to simply witness the fact that our culture’s replacement for religion—consumerism and a ceaseless striving for more—is never going to satisfy our longings for connection, depth, and love.
I remember a night here, in October a year ago. After 58 people were killed at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, we held a vespers service. I saw on the faces of people coming in to church that night how important it was that we were here, holding open this space for grief and mourning, and how important it was to be here together. Around the edge of a table up front we’d arranged fifty-nine votive candles, one for each of the victims, and one for the perpetrator too. And people came forward and lit all those candles. And together we prayed and wept and voiced our outrage at another mass shooting in our country,
When the service was over and people had left, I walked back into the sanctuary. Those candles were still burning, and one of you was standing by the table, tears running down your face. And you said to me, “We need to extinguish these candles reverently.” And I said, “Yes, we do.” We stood there in silence for a minute, then I said a prayer, and quietly and carefully we started putting out each of those lights that stood for each of those lives.
On the drive home that night, I found myself thinking of how grateful I am to be in this work with you, and how grateful I am to be part of a community and a tradition that has these ways to respond when tragedy strikes, that has rituals which can help start to heal what has been broken. I’m not saying that I think there need don’t need to be other responses too, but I know, deep in my bones, that when we don’t know what to do, and want to rush off and do something, anything; that what is needed is some time and space to sit with our grief and brokenness, and not run away from that. And I’m grateful to be in a place where this is wanted and even expected.
Because his is something our society has largely forgotten how to do. How to hold a sacred space in the public square. How to speak to the spiritual depths that people are so resistant to, and so hungry for, these days. How to gather in reverence, how to be led into moments of awe and wonder and connection, how to come together despite the differences that would divide us.
Last Sunday afternoon my wife Tracey and I attended a memorial service for the adult son of friends of ours, a man in his forties who had taken his own life. During that service, people were invited to come up and light candles silently, and some continued to do this even after the service had ended. It was a poignant reminder that at times like this words alone are not enough, we need tangible acts of reverence and ritual.
But it’s harder to do this in the public sphere. I used to watch one of those hospital TV dramas, and when something bad would happen, I’d wonder aloud, “Where’s the chaplain?” The good news is that, in some settings, the need for spiritual care is being addressed. Hospice has helped, and the growing number of interfaith chaplains has helped. Our local efforts at interfaith dialogue, gathering in each other’s faith communities over a meal, is helping too.
Something we Unitarian Universalists are naturally good at is being open to varied perspectives, learning how to translate and make meaning across difference; holding open a space for people with diverse theologies and spiritualities to enter these depths together. These days I’m simply grateful that you are here, that we are here. I’m grateful for what we have here, and wondering how we might share it more widely.
In our first reading today, those ancient words from the prophet Isaiah remind us that our human tendency to resist and run away from the Holy is nothing new. Isaiah writes,
(The Holy One says)
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.
But you refused and said,
“No! We will flee… (Isaiah 30:15-16a).
Still, Isaiah says, the Holy will hear us when we cry out in times of trouble: “And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isaiah 30:21).
This is what good religion does, what good ritual does: it reminds us that there is a way that is good and true, and helps us walk in it together. Isn’t this what people are hungry for? These shared experiences of reverence and meaning? The poet David Whyte writes of a time with fellow pilgrims, being reminded of what we know in our bones, but so often forget:
to say a simple word
of thanks that we could walk
to this place and find it
like a promised understanding,
like an intuition long held,
that it stood always
at the end
of the long road
we took to get here
as if to welcome us;
as if to teach and hold us
in this time, now,
to understand at last,
how close the threshold
is that takes us
like a blessing
from a world
we think we know
and turns our face
There’s a poster in my office, created by the Children’s Defense Fund, a child’s crayon drawing of a boat on a bumpy sea, with the words of this fishermen’s prayer: “Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.”
This sense of perspective, this awareness of our individual smallness, seems out of fashion these days. Our consumer-driven society wants us to think that our individual boats, with some improvement, are enough. But if you have ever seen the ocean in a storm, you know that even a large boat is not always enough. We are in a storm these days, and we need all the help we can get. It’s obvious, isn’t it, that our individual boats are not enough?
Do you remember that scene from the movie “Jaws,” what Roy Scheider says when he first sees the great white shark? “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” To help heal our wounds, to engage across our differences with these holy mysteries, what our society needs these days is a bigger boat. Larger and more generous ways of being religious, touching these depths, together. And this is something we can and should be part of.
The truth is, a bigger boat isn’t something any one person or group can build by themselves. It’s something we create together: when we open ourselves to one another and to the Spirit, when we join hearts and hands, when we trust there is a power moving among us, that will help us and heal us if we will let it.
This is what our world is hungry for these days So let’s get on with it. Remembering that we are “kindred pilgrim souls, making our way by the lights of the heavens.” Making our way home, together.