Things Fall Apart

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, March 4, 2018.

We live in a transitory world. As we just heard from the poet William Stafford, 

Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

The earth is forever turning, the seasons come and go, time keeps moving on; life is beautiful and sweet and sad sometimes. Do you know what entropy is? I don’t pretend to understand it. But in thermodynamics it’s the degradation of matter and energy in the universe, the movement from order to disorder. Things unwind, unravel, things fall apart. I don’t know about you, but entropy makes me sad!

The preacher at this year’s Merrimack Valley Martin Luther King Breakfast was Rev. Alicia Marie Johnson, a Baptist minister who earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry. That day she preached to us a hopeful sermon about entropy. I wish I’d taken notes. She said the faithful response to this dissipation of energy is the application of our own energy. That the fact of entropy calls us to work, while we’re here, to do what we can to make things better. 

Our worship theme for March is “brokenness,” and for April it’s “transformation.” Thinking about this, I realized they belong together. That acknowledging brokenness is often the first step toward transformation. That brokenness can push us to be the change we want to see. So I’m thinking of these Sundays, from now until mid-April, as a journey called “The Way of Transformation.” A journey from brokenness toward healing and wholeness. From winter toward spring, from Lent toward Easter. A journey I hope you’ll engage with, and travel with me, like pilgrims, on the way together.

And we begin the journey by telling the truth about brokenness. That things do break, that we get old and suffer and die, that we hurt others and ourselves sometimes. That there’s so much beyond our control. Given all this, I can think of brokenness as sad and depressing. A negative fact of life. Something you have to deal with, whether you like it or not.

But isn’t this is a shallow way of thinking? Some of the most memorable encounters I’ve had are with people near the end of life. Difficult situations can bring out the best in us. The knowledge of our mortality can inspire us to live more fully while we’re here. You have to admit something is broken before you can fix it.

Contemplating New England stone walls that keep falling down, Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” But that truth didn’t send him into despair or depression; he met up with his neighbor and they mended that wall, and Robert Frost got a poem out of it. 

And if we broaden our view to see brokenness not only on the personal level, but in institutions and communities and society? Rather than discouraging us, might this awareness fuel us to do the work we are called to do? In the Hebrew tradition, the call of tikkun olam, “to repair the world.”

I’ve been rereading a book called The Holy Longing, by the Catholic priest and theologian Ron Rolheiser. In the first sentence he writes, “This is a book for you if you are struggling spiritually.” The early chapters offer an assessment of these times we’re living in: what’s broken and how we might make things better.

It’s helpful, when you’re lost, to have a road map or a GPS. It’s important, when you’re trying to fix something, to have a manual or guide; some set of operating instructions, right? That’s how I experienced this book: as a clear and compelling exploration of the situation we face these days, a way to work through the struggles and develop a healthy and life-giving spirituality. 

Ron Rolheiser acknowledges that things have changed, that the old ways of doing religion are no longer working, and are falling away. You know, entropy. Things fall apart. But rather than bemoan the situation, he names the struggles we face and offers a way forward.

He begins by saying it’s never been easy to walk this earth and find peace. That we have within us “a fundamental dis-ease, an unquenchable fire. He says, “spirituality is about what we do with our unrest.” We need to be strong-souled; to have passion for life, and know who we are. To be on fire and yet grounded, glued together—that is a healthy spirituality, he says. You know, roots and wings, head and heart.

Rolheiser sees three struggles in spirituality unique to our time: 1) a naiveté about the nature of spiritual energy, 2) busyness, distraction, and restlessness, and 3) a problem with balance. 

People used to understand that spiritual and erotic energy was powerful and potentially dangerous. Cultures had rules and rituals for approaching the holy and keeping human passion in balance. These taboos may seem oppressive to our way of thinking, but Rolheiser says that families and communities in those earlier societies held together better than in our own; they had meaning in their lives and were less prone to inflation and depression than we are. 

Last fall I got a call from a family in Lawrence. They were living in a house that was haunted, they said; they needed my help. I wasn’t trained for this, but said I’d come over and meet their young adult son, who was the most affected. When we talked, he said he’d been experimenting with the occult and with meditation; at first it had been good, but then he felt the presence of a powerful spirit that had started messing with him, making him very uncomfortable. That day I performed the closest thing to an exorcism that I will ever get to do, as a UU minister! I left that experience reminded that these are powerful forces, and we should be careful what we mess around with. It’s a sign of health and wisdom to approach the altar of the holy with reverence. Just because you can find anything you want on the internet now doesn’t mean it’s good for you. There are some things you shouldn’t try to do all on your own.

The second struggle Rolheiser names is with busyness, distraction, and restlessness. This is pretty obvious, right? It’s no secret that we are moving faster than our parents and grandparents did. We have access to way more information, from all around the world, but we haven’t learned how to hold it or metabolize it. We carry these powerful computers around in our pockets and yet, we sense that something is missing.

One affliction of our time is a preoccupation with ourselves; we are so focused on work, achievement, and other practical matters; and when not working, we want to be entertained. Most of us are on the go, most of the time. “Narcissism accounts for our heartaches,” Rolheiser says, “pragmatism for our headaches, and restlessness for our insomnia… we rarely find the time and space to be in touch with the deeper movements inside of and around us.” 

I know in my own soul the longing for more spaciousness. For time to just be. Anybody else feel that longing? It’s one reason I love this hour on Sunday; this time to be here, together. But is it enough? I don’t think so.

The third challenge of our time is one of balance. We tend to split things apart, and pit one side against the other. You see this polarization in politics, of course; every issue is a battle, and too often it’s about winning, rather than serving the common good.

There’s the split between the institutional church and the growing number of people who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Certainly the church has pushed a lot of people away, but I worry about those folks who are tying to do it all on their own. And there’s the split is between religion and sensuality. The church doesn’t do joy very well, or celebrate the body, and our culture doesn’t know how to be reverent or restrained. I’m glad that, in this church, we aren’t too pious, and we teach our children a healthy and life-affirming sexuality.

Another split, Rolheiser says, is between private morality and social justice. It’s unusual to find people who both pray and work for justice, who have a passion for marching and for spiritual practice. Though I think we are doing better here at living in that tension, between action and contemplation. The goal is to heal these splits, to become more whole.

You could probably name other things that are falling apart. And there may be ones you need to focus on right now. But please don’t stay there. Because we’re on the way, from brokenness toward healing. And to get there, we’ll need to focus on what will help us, and hold us, as we travel this way together. Next week we’ll explore the idea of the wounded healer, the strength and wisdom and grace that come from passing though hardship, making of your struggle “a raft that leads to the far shore.” 

William Safford knew something about this. In the last days of his life, he wrote,

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.

We may have different names for that thread. We may think of it as the human spirit or our Higher Power. We may call it Spirit of Life or even God. What matters is that you have something to hold on to. It can be hard to explain, because you often can’t see the thread; you may wonder if it’s there. If you’re too busy or to self-absorbed or out of balance, it’s easy to lose hold of it. Please don’t do that. Because you need it. Like we need one another. 

While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread. (“The Way it Is,” by William Stafford)

On the way from brokenness to healing to wholeness, let’s hold on, to the thread and to each another. Let’s hold on to hope, and let’s trust in the Love that will guide us on the way.