The challenge in this religious community has always been: what will we do with that yearning for home? Will it make us inward focused, thinking only about ourselves and what we need and want, or will our yearning for home and permanence open our hearts up to the world, seeing home in the human heart, seeing home in the spiritual discipline of hospitality, open mindedness, and a deep compassion for the suffering in the world? Like many religious communities, this congregation’s predominant inclination is to focus inwards and we have always struggled with how to put the need for home in proper perspective so we do not become simply about ourselves. The challenge for us is to internalize the abiding truth that when you have an outward focus, you are taking care of the hearth fire. An outward focus will bring inward richness and bounty.
This sermon was delivered at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on Sunday January 25, 2014:
Today we’re talking about journeying with grace. Packing our bag, looking toward a horizon, and moving towards it. How do we do that with integrity and with grace? Two weeks ago I talked about the kind of grace that is like receiving peace in complicated times. Today I want to talk about grace as a way of moving through the world and in our relationships with others, grace as a way of finding new life over and over again.
Twenty-two years ago, I set off on a grand adventure! I wanted to set off on my own, free and independent. I got a job in a college cafeteria in Germany. I borrowed my brother’s knapsack, borrowed money from an uncle to pay the airfare, and set off. I hoped that I would be able to eat in the cafeteria until my first paycheck. I chose not to buy a travel guide, thinking I would save money by finding my way once I got there.
I also didn’t have money for lightweight clothing so my pack was pretty heavy. This became painfully obvious when I got lost looking for a hostel in Frankfurt because I didn’t have a travel guide for directions. Gone went a pair of prized jeans, several t-shirts, an extra pair of shoes, and a bottle of moisturizer, given to the pink haired punk kids who lived outside the train station. On the second day I got food poisoning at a German Chinese Restaurant. You think American Chinese is bad? Try German Chinese! Food poisoning was a mixed blessing. I had not desire to spend my dwindling cash supply on food.
I’m surprised I got to the school. I was saved by English speaking travelers and kind ladies who mistook my odd way of speaking German for being Swedish. I was saved by having parents who answered my collect calls and an ex-boyfriend who mailed a travel guide. I was saved by the cafeteria women, who treated me like a granddaughter. I gained 20 twenty pounds in 2 months.
In other words, I didn’t do my journey alone. I became ever more embedded in a network of relationships spanning continents, cultures, languages, and generations. All I had to do was set aside my pride and ask for help. It was not at all how I had envisioned my journey into independence, but it was how I made it through.
Our particular culture doesn’t always give us this story. The dominant story in the western world, especially for those of us who are white, educated, and middle class, is that going it on our own is morally superior to leaning on others. Self-reliance is a sign of moral strength. This is the story I hoped to live on my adventure. I wanted to be completely independent. I will readily admit I felt some shame, even years later, for not being able to do that.
What I wonder now, is that perhaps I wasn’t giving myself credit for how strong I was. A foolish person would have kept trying to go it alone. A wise person knows when to ask for help. Perhaps this is a stronger way of being than being stoically suffering.
The word clouds that we saw this morning, created by the visioning process that this congregation is engaging, contain a lot of meaning, too much to examine in one sermon, but I think they show us a way of living in resistance to this dominant story. I want to focus on four words that came up over and over again in those word clouds: community, children, home, and permanence.
Many of us have come here seeking out community because deep down we have learned that we can’t do life on our own. We are being wounded over and over by trying to live into the story of the self-made person. What we are yearning for is interdependence, which is very different. Independence is standing alone. Interdependence is standing strong within the web of life, knowing that you are held in so many ways.
The other word that came up frequently is “children”. Many of you come to church for your children, you stay for your children, and even after they go off to college, you continue to stay because this is now your community and you want this community to be strong for those who come after you. Those of us who do not have children at home come to church because we want to be in a multigenerational community.
What is it about having children woven into our community life that is so spiritually nurturing? Children show us, without apology, what interdependence really looks like. Children have permission to need us. We know that is the deal. When there are children in our midst, we can’t just up and go live our independent adventures. We have to think about our every choice and how it will impact them.
Some churches don’t do this very well. There is a strong generational divide between kids, their parents, and everyone else. We have made a different choice. Sometimes it makes life more complicated, often it even makes life more expensive, but we welcome that as a blessing because we believe it brings us into right relationship with each other. Multigenerational community is one of our spiritual disciplines.
The other two words that came up over and over again were “home” and “permanent”. Most of us know exactly where those words come from in the context of this church. Last summer, we experienced us packing up, selling, and leaving the place that we called home for 24 years. It’s not surprising that there is an emptiness because we don’t have that physical anchor anymore. I know that many of us have had the experience of packing up homes that we have lived in for generations, perhaps the family home when a parent passes away or needs a different level of care. We will remember how hard it is to make the decisions – what do you keep, what goes to Goodwill, what gets thrown away? Every decision seems to be about how you will honor the history that you have experienced, the love, the memories. It is exhausting.
When you’ve packed the last box, locked the door, and driven away, it can feel like a hole in your heart. An anchor that has always been there, the centering of a physical place, is no longer there. It can be very disorienting and spiritually painful to accept your new normal. How long does it take to get used to this new normal? It can take a long time. There is a reason that the prevailing wisdom about a major loss is that you should make no significant decisions for 1-2 years after the loss. You may simply not be in the right frame of mind to make strong decisions. The loss defines the decisions for you.
It would be easy to assume from the word clouds that the presence of the words “home” and “permanent” is predominantly because of what we have just been through. But I think there is more to it than that.
Two weeks ago I talked about the impact on our psyches of having a very transient society. Most of us have lived in 3 or more states. We assume that our children will live in another city when they grow up. We assume that family may not mean an every day presence in our lives. I think this takes its toll. I know it has taken its toll on me. Living far from my family. Far from childhood friends, having to recreate a community time after time. Every new loss brings up echoes of older ones. I suspect that the sale of our building has touched on older losses that are still working themselves out in our psyches.
In every single visioning process this church has done, even before the move, even before I became your minister, home was always way up there. It would still be up there if we had remained in our building because we live in such a highly mobile society that we are managing loss all the time. So the presence of those is words is about more than just what happened six months ago. It’s always been there, but it is magnified right now because of the move.
The challenge in this religious community has always been what will we do with that yearning for home. Will it make us inward focused, thinking only about ourselves and what we need and want, or will our yearning for home and permanence open our hearts up to the world, seeing home in the human heart, seeing home in the spiritual discipline of hospitality, open mindedness, and a deep compassion for the suffering in the world? Like many religious communities, this congregation’s predominant inclination is to focus inwards and we have always struggled with how to put the need for home in proper perspective so we do not become simply about ourselves. The challenge for us is to internalize the abiding truth that when you have an outward focus, you are taking care of the hearth fire. An outward focus will bring inward richness and bounty.
As many of you know, we have been holding vigils for racial justice for three months. Every Saturday we stand at the same intersection at the Chesterfield Commons. Doing this has helped us create home in Chesterfield. We are claiming our place in a very different way than Emerson Chapel ever has before, by moving out into the world rather than into a physical building. We are practicing the spiritual discipline of standing on the side of love. And for me, at least, St. Louis feels more like home than it ever has, because I have anchored in Unitarian Universalist values for my city. Home has happened by creating our sanctuary on a busy commercial drive. Our sanctuary is our bodies, standing together in love in the wind, in the rain, in the cold, and sometimes blissfully in the sun.
We know that it is going to take several years to have a permanent home again, even to rent a space that is only ours. We are going to have to grow as a congregation, quite a lot, and the board is going to look at exactly how much we would need to grow so that we have a realistic timeline for getting there. So, we need to keep that long term goal in front of us, and at the same time, look at how we will create home and permanence right now. With who we are now, where we are now.
When I look at all the faiths in the world, I see so many different ways of creating home. A Roman Catholic has home when they pull out their rosary beads. A Baptist is home when they open up the family Bible. A Jewish person has home when they say the Sabbath prayers. A Muslim is home when they face Mecca.
What is home for Unitarian Universalists? Our home is in our spiritual disciplines of interdependence, compassion, justice, equality, and reverence.
You know what one of my favorite times of the week has become? Sunday from 9- 10 a.m. because that’s when we create our sacred space. We move chairs, hang curtains, wire the sound, and roll in the pulpit and chalice. We make the coffee and set up the greeter table. Everyone is working together to create our sacred place. What we are doing is Unitarian Universalist theology in action. We are incarnating interdependence. We all need each other, coming together, with our various skills and understandings, to create the vehicle for our community to connect and deepen. And when the chalice is extinguished at the end of worship, its transformative power goes into our hearts. We put all the material trappings of church away in Room 135, and the true center of our faith goes out into the world incarnated in us who have been strengthened and renewed in coming together.
If this is not an act of journeying with grace, then I don’t know what is. Sometimes my heart feels so big I don’t know how I will be able to hold it all, because of what I see us creating together, because of how I see us living our Unitarian Universalism. We often say that Unitarian Universalism is about thinking outside the box, standing against the grain, being creative and open minded, ready for new ideas and new ways of being. We aren’t just talking about that anymore, we are living it.
In this way, we are journeying with grace, remaining open and kind, thankful and generous, anchored in the present and looking to the future. Wherever we land years from now, right now, we have landed here, and we have the opportunity to find home right now. And we will find new life, over and over again.
May the spirit be with you and yours. Amen and blessed be.