Take Refuge: But Where, and How?

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, August 18, 2019.

A couple of weeks ago, on a Tuesday morning here, the worship committee was meeting. We were gathered around a table, and Bo had made coffee, which made me glad. We lit the chalice, and I felt compelled to say a few words in response to the killings that had just happened in El Paso and Dayton. 

There were no words that could make things better, of course, so after I said a few, there was an unplanned silence. We just sat there for a bit. Then we had a brief check-in and we started in on our work. It was good to there, gathered together, to see those faces around the table, to have time for conversation about things that matter. 

A theme arose from our check-in, and it was this: trying to be happy, in spite of all the _____, all the pain and trouble in our world. Trying to find joy, even when things seem to be going to hell. We are living in a time when white supremacy is on the rise. When some white people, threatened by growing diversity, and emboldened by some of our leaders, are trying to intimidate and harm people of color. How do we live in these times? How do you dare to be happy, when you know that people are hurting or at risk? How do you live with the knowledge that we are on the brink of environmental disaster? When you fear for the lives of our children and grandchildren?

These days I find myself praying Psalm 91: “O God, you are my strength and my refuge, you are where I put my trust.” And I find myself thinking about that idea of refuge. 

This time last week, Tracey and I were camping on a lake up north that straddles the Maine-New Hampshire border; much of the land around it is a National Wildlife Refuge. Which means it’s a place set aside for wild creatures, where they can be safe from humans and the ways we threaten them. 

In the Andes mountains in Argentina, hikers can stay overnight at refugios, mountain shelters, where they rest and take shelter from the elements. The Buddhist temple we host here offers Refuge Recovery, a Buddhist inspired path to recovery from addiction. Our country used to take pride in being a refuge for people fleeing war and persecution. You know the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me…”

A refuge is a safe place, a shelter from the storm, a place of recovery and restoration. And who among us doesn’t need that? I was making a hospital visit this week, and on the way out the door I remembered the chapel, and stopped in there and got on my knees for a few minutes. My daily practice of silent prayer and meditation is certainly a refuge for me. 

A refuge is not a place to hide, not an escape from the challenges of our lives and the world. It’s not a place of make-believe, where you pretend that things are magically going to be okay. No, it’s a place to rest and recover enough that you can go back out, renewed, strengthened, ready to embrace life again. Knowing that it will be painful at times, that you will get your heart broken, that sometimes the best you can do is to stay in the struggle.

In my experience, it is in these places of refuge that I can face the truth, can better see and understand the ways I need to change and grow. What I need, and what I find in these places, is the reminder that there is a force larger than myself. And if I hand myself over to that force, then I find myself strengthened and renewed. 

In Judaism, people take refuge in reading and studying Torah, the holy book, and in keeping the Sabbath, at temple and at home. It’s often said, "More than the Jewish people has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people." Buddhists practice taking refuge in three things: the Buddha, the dharma, which is the path and the teaching, and the sangha, the community.

What about Unitarian Universalists? What do we take refuge in? What about you, in your particular life? Do you have a place, a way, to calm yourself, to “return to the home of your soul,” as the hymn puts it?

Some years ago, I was talking with my spiritual director about this, and I said something that I didn’t know until I said it. I told her, “I have learned how to drop down into God.” And this is what prayer is for me: a way of quieting my own mind, of waiting for my ego to settle down and step back; so I can drop down into that place of connection with that which is always there, and so near to us, if we will seek it.

I was talking with one of you this week, and you reminded me how doing the work of the twelve steps has saved your life. And you quoted the second step: “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” 

When you limp into a refugio high in the Andes, you don’t need convincing that the mountains or the high-altitude weather are powers greater than yourself. When you have walked a thousand miles with your children, fleeing violence in Honduras, you aren’t telling the border agent how powerful you are: “I am seeking refugee status because I am self-sufficient and I have come bearing gifts!” No, you are saying, “I am here, seeking the protection of this country. Please help me.”

There should be nothing shameful about seeking refuge. But too often we equate vulnerability with weakness. But isn’t the ability to tell the truth that you are tired and worn, that you need to be strengthened and renewed, isn't this actually a show of strength?

So how do you take refuge, and where? You start by seeking help, by admitting you need more than what you can conjure all by yourself. Sometimes you come to this willingly and carefully: you seek out a therapist or you take up a meditation practice. And sometimes life pushes you down to your knees, or into an AA meeting, or into a church even! 

Taking refuge starts with saying, “I need help!” and then, looking around and looking inside, and seeing what appears, what doors are opening, what is calling to your soul. It’s not complicated. It’s what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Seek, and you will find. Ask, and you will receive.”

Where you take refuge, well, that’s up to you. There’s that saying, “Any port in a storm.” You have a lot of choices these days. Maybe too many. There are books and gurus and different methods, and you have to separate the real from the fake. The traditional approaches, like prayer and meditation, like gathering in community for worship and learning and service, these are traditions because they work. 

What I love about this church, and these times we are living in, is that we have the freedom to translate and adapt these traditions so they are useful to us. We have guides, some old ones, and contemporary ones too, who can help show us the way. 

What is needed, I’m convinced, for us as individuals and as a society, is to take a wider and longer view. To put something bigger than our selves at the center; to turn our hearts toward that which is deeper, toward that mystery which is always more.

We heard Mary Oliver’s testimony to this truth (from “More Beautiful than the Honey Locust Tree are the Words of the Lord”):

All day I watch the sky changing from blue to blue. 
For You are forever 
and I am like a single day that passes. 
All day I think thanks for this world, 
for the rocks and the tips of the waves, 
for the tupelos and the fading roses. 
For the wind. 
For You are forever 
while I am like a single day that passes.
You are the heart of the cedars of Lebanon and the fir called Douglas,
the bristlecone, and the willow.

Yes, there is much to be concerned about, and troubled by, these days. Our world needs us to be strong and resilient and faithful, and yes, it needs us to be joyful. So please seek out the places that will heal and restore your soul, so you can be strong for the living of these days. We need you: your family and friends need you, this community needs you, and our world needs you. 

Will you join me in prayer? Spirit of great mystery, You are always here, You have always been, and always will be; companion us in our days, help us to find our way to the places that are strengthening and sustaining, where we will be in touch with your Presence, which is at the heart of all things, and which is so near to us. Lead us, we pray, in the way of goodness, and justice, and peace, so we will joyfully help to heal and bless our world,