The Deep End

Sermon given by Intern Minister Sophia Lyons, September 22, 2019

What wondrous love is this that takes away the pain of my soul?  What love is this that our poet Pesha Gertler holds for her untended wounds her no places her wrong streets to call them Holy, holy, holy?  What wonderous love is this?

At the beginning of September Rev. Frank introduced us to our theme this month of Deepening Understanding.  I don’t know if you remember but at one point during his homily entitled Deep Calls to Deep, he asked our kids if they had ever taken swimming lessons.  He reminded us all of how scary it can at first be at the shallow end when we are beginners, but what a difference it makes to get to that Deep End–the place where you can dive and plunge and cultivate a kind of unbridled joy.  It’s worth it, even if it is scary, right?  

Swimming pools make for beautiful symbolic imagery I think.  You see, despite their chemically treated waters and wholly unnatural constructions there is also such profound beauty in the idea that we enter in at the shallow end, the place where you can –at your own pace–ease your way into the newness of swimming, or even the cold, cold waters of an early summer dip.  And then there is the slow and steady drop, right?  Somewhere in the middle, you might not be able to touch the bottom, let alone see it anymore.  You might be on your tippy-toes–holding on until the last second when you have to start swimming.  And swimming is different here with the safety of the bottom gone.  Now you are at the Deep End, where you must trust your body to keep you afloat, or grip the edge for support…

I am from Los Angeles, that is where I was born and raised–a place whose desert summer culture was centered around the swimming pool.  That’s actually a misstatement–whose year round culture was centered around the swimming pool.  My memories as a child have much to do with cold wet bathing suits being stretched and painfully pulled on in early hot summer mornings; the way the chlorine smelled differently on a cold fall night then it did at the height of summer; the warmth of a heated pool on a winter’s day…and the frantic, slipping, shivering run inside afterwards…heart racing and dripping in the warm haven of my kitchen.

But this isn’t where my memories with pools stop.  Lovely as they all sound..This is where I tell you about my bad, bad babysitting experience.  I was the “baby” in this scenario, at the ripe age of 6, and my well-intending but utterly irresponsible teen babysitter thought that the movie Jaws (the nightmarish story of a massive great white shark on a free for all in the Cape-Cod-like town of Amittyville)–that this might be a good evening film to watch while my unsuspecting parents were away.

Upon seeing this movie I became terrified not of oceans, weirdly enough, but of the deep end of the swimming pool.  Now, this didn’t stop me from swimming in this side of the pool–it was too wonderful to resist–but I did so, every time, with butteries in my stomach.  A beautiful dive would end with me frantically swimming to the side and hurling myself out, always just barely escaping certain death.  A swim to the bottom to touch that smooth, light blue cement was done with eyes tightly closed and a lighting speed expertly-angled launch back to the shallow end…my body quickly appraised to make sure everything was in its starting place.  Oh the relief of the shallow end.

My sense is that this seems a fitting analogy to the courage it takes to do deep, interior work.  What I would call spiritual work.  To courageously venture out from the safety of the shallows–the places in our lives that feel safe and predictable and routined–where we can touch the ground at any time–venturing out from this into the dark, unseen depths of our stories and lives with the knowing that there might be monsters waiting for us down there.  We might believe, have faith, in the treasures to be found in the depths, not unlike Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s bright colored cochina clams and shells opening and closing like butterflies wings, right?  We know that we must go down there and bring them back up to the surface–we are called to this in so many ways and we trust that there is such profound wonder and joy and connection to be found in this work…but dear God is it scary, isn’t it?  The No places, the ebb tide places, the shark infested Deep End.  Scary.

So yes, Dear Ones, the Deep End requires courage. Faithful risk.  This is a term we worked with a bit yesterday at our Spiritual Leadership retreat.  It’s risky because you might lose something, a part of you might die, you might be transformed, altered, rearranged.  Who knows?  It’s really the not knowing that can get to me.  And why do it?  Because we have to, we are called to it by virtue of being human beings and alive.  We have faith that it will be worth it.  That no matter what it will be worth it.  What else is that but faith?  To launch out into the unknown scary places with the hope that it will be worth it.  I call that faith.

Six years ago I sat in the pews of the First Religious Society, having only attended for about a year, and somewhere in the middle of Harold Babcock, our minister at the time’s, sermon, a voice dropped into my body saying, you could do this.  A call. Oh how nice this story would be if I launched into the joys of ministry right there and then…No, that is not what happened.  The next day I spent hours online strategically searching for and successfully finding affirmation that UU ministry was a horrible, horrible vocation.  It’s not hard to see what you want to see when you are frightened.  And it’s not hard to bend the internet to your will either…

But here’s the thing with call stories.  They kind of have to happen eventually.  The thing that calls you usually wins out.  It really is just a question of how long. How long until you are willing to take the plunge.  Squeeze your eyes shut and jump.  For months all kinds of strange and wonderful whisperings kept coming my way and that voice that I heard in the pews?  It just got louder and louder and louder.  I let this go on for a whole year certain about my NO and certain that the messages coming in were going to send me, like Gertler writes, down the wrong street. Oh I was certain.  Sort of.

I was driving to pick my girls up from school one day–and it was about a 30 minute drive–timed precisely when Terri Gross was interviewing the Lutheran pastor and author, Nadia Bolz-Weber on Fresh Air.  In this interview she spoke of her call to ministry and how it was born up and out of her recovery from alcoholism and how it offered her a deep and profound connection with God and a spiritual community of castaways that she was called to build a church for in Denver, CO.  

While her and I have different theologies, our stories were and are the same.  I too am a person whose recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism at the age of 25, 19 years ago, was the great and wondrous portal into a spiritual life that transformed me utterly; I too see my ministry as about offering a spiritual home to those who are adrift, cast off, stuck in the shallows and terrified of the Deep End.  And I needed Nadia to tell me on that drive to get my daughters that in the end, the only real love in the world is found when you let yourself  be truly known.  

You see what was keeping from heeding this call was fear.  Terror really.  Terror of being truly known and of saying YES to the secret kingdom at the bottom of my sea.  Do you know this feeling?  

And so, I needed to name the monsters in the depths, if you know what I mean: the cost of seminary; the fear of failing miserably; the possibility that I may change my mind halfway through–that it all would be for naught; that I might be a horrible minister–limited, inept, selfish–that I couldn’t possibly live up to the incredible UU ministers I knew and loved; that my family–my daughters–would suffer, that they might lose me to this work; and on and on and on.  Oh what  relief it was to just say it all out loud.  Oh what a relief it was to hold it close and call it Holy.  Valid.

This naming buoyed me.  Helped me to inch out into the depths and get a closer look–through squinting eyes–at the bottom of the deep.  And what I saw when I did this?  I saw that my whole life–all of my greatest joys and greatest sorrows were there calling me towards the work of ministry.  They they had outfitted me for it. It took faith in what I call God–a great source of Wondrous Love that named my wounds and worries Holy–to surrender to the Deep.  

Moving into the depths of our deepest of selves, our calls to choices, relationships, vocations…this is spiritual work.  And it is hard.  It is scary.  The starting place is in asking yourself what makes you want to leap from the pool with butterflies in your stomach– and what launches you back to the shallow end for fear of being devoured in some way?  Can you name it?  Have you tried?

You know, it is right and good to take comfort at the shallow end–we really do need this too–but when fear keeps us stuck there we must begin to ask ourselves what we need so as to help us courageously move towards the depths.  

I tend to think it’s a community of beloved travelers (or swimmers as the case may be), a place to be known and to know others, and a spiritual life that binds us both individually and collectively together no matter how we articulate it.  

As we move into our week, let us try to listen to what might be whispering to us, calling to us from the other end of the pool.  Let us tiptoe if we can towards the Deep End, even though it might feel scary.  Let us do this knowing that the pool is, indeed, vast and that we need not venture out alone.  No Dear Ones, we need not venture out alone.