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A sermon by DRE Cathy Seggel for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, December 13, 2009

Waiting for the Ninth Wave

We are living ‘neath the great big dipper
We are washed by the very same rain
We are swimming in the stream together
Some in power and some in pain
We can worship the ground we walk on
Cherishing the beings that we live beside
Loving spirits will live forever
We’re all swimming to the other side

I am alone and I am searching
Hungering for answers in my time
I am balanced at the brink of wisdom
I’m impatient to receive a sign
I move forward with my senses open
Imperfection, it be my crime
In humility I will listen
We’re all swimming to the other side

On this journey through thoughts and feelings
Binding intuition, my head, my heart
I am gathering the tools together
I’m preparing to do my part
All of those who have come before me
Band together and be my guide
Loving lessons that I will follow
We’re all swimming to the other side

When we get there we’ll discover
All of the gifts we’ve been given to share
Have been with us since life’s beginning
And we never noticed they were there
We can balance at the brink of wisdom
Never recognizing that we’ve arrived
Loving spirits will live together
We’re all swimming to the other side

Swimming to the Other Side, Pat Humphries

I have always loved beaches, rivers, lakes, crystal clear swimming pools. A primal peace washes over my soul when immersed in water. Gazing at sunny water sparkle is inspirational. Most of my family has similar feelings. Our children have been lifeguards, like their parents. When they were young, my mantra was “The beach is my church.” Back then, with towels, sunscreen, snacks and extraneous paraphernalia parents think we need, I managed the kid-noisy ride, in anticipation, to the sea. So much bother for a few uncluttered hours soaking in palpable feelings of hope and freedom, seldom found in tiring routines.
The sound of the gulls, the choir?
Worship? It sure felt like it.

When I was a teen surfer girl, summer days meant floating on the Atlantic Ocean, down the shore, the Jersey shore, of course. In that era, I waited, for the right wave, for a perfect tan, (later resulting in mini corrective surgeries).
Waited to ride the big wave, to impress, perhaps, a boyfriend?

According to surfers, waves come in three’s; the Ninth Wave, last in a series of three sets, is considered the most powerful and dangerous. You can be pummeled or stand up and ride. Little did we know that the 9th wave, the one we were waiting for, symbolized major danger. The Ninth Wave is also the name of a famous 1850 painting by Ivan Aivazovsky. It depicts a sea after a night storm and people facing death, attempting to save themselves by clinging to shipwreck debris. The painting has warm tones and a not so menacing sea, portraying a chance for survival.

Anticipating threats, worrying forward, is an anxiety that some of us practice in all kinds of situations. We also dream of, yearn for times of fulfillment, happiness and peace. When, all will be well.

This season’s holidays focus on the human experience of waiting. All around the world, for thousands of years, there have been festivals of light to celebrate sacred days, in expectation of hope, freedom, death and life, including Chanukah, this week.

We look forward to so many things: For the light to return to the world, for courage to take hold of our hearts. For anger, envy, and hatred to be banished. For family unity, bearable work situations, finding ways to conquer personal isolation and fear.
For the birth of the sun and the son.
For the time of miracles to be our time.

Christmas is coming.
As Unitarian Universalists, drawing wisdom from many sources, which may change over our lifetimes, it is worthy to note this mystical wisdom saying about the life of Jesus from the unofficial, gospel of Thomas, When Jesus is asked by a follower when the capital K, Kingdom will come, he remarks that it will not come by looking for it, rather that the Kingdom of God is spread upon the earth and the people just don’t see it. According to religious educator, Rev. Randy Becker, “The Christian tradition of Advent now symbolizes that which is already, but not yet, that for which we wait and hope.

What are we really waiting for?

It feels good to be with you this morning. In my twenty years as a religious educator I have partially composed imaginary sermons for you. They focused on UU faith development for children and youth and shared my philosophy that all we do as a congregation is religious education. That children and youth, along with adults are searching for anchors in seas of choices regarding religious or spiritual identity.

Today, the message in my heart and mind flows through and actually informs that very faith development.
As is often the case, I need this sermon as much or perhaps more than you do.

How do we make meaning of the relentless comings and goings we must face and the anticipation involved in living through inevitable change? What keeps us moving forward?

Right now, aging is on my mind as it is for friends assisting parents in the closing chapters of life. Some of you know, we have been caring for my mother in our home since August, 2008.
Isn’t it natural to wonder how we might live and even die well?

This will take some doing. I’m a baby-boomer.
Are any of you?
I grew up with a deep-seated fear and discomfort around the idea of old age. Maybe that message was imprinted by whispers about illness or people “passing-away.”

Other influences have interceded.

A few years ago, I was attracted to country music.
My children were appalled.
For example, these Lee Ann Womack lyrics:

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder
You get your fill to eat
But always keep that hunger
May you never take one single breath for granted
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed
I hope you still feel small
When you stand by the ocean
Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens
Promise me you'll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance I hope you dance

I love dancing. Especially, Cajun.

My music colleagues, our magnificent, Fred Jodry and the fabulous Marcia Taylor can vouch for this: For me, it is all about the music. Lyrics and tunes directly inform my spirituality. In preparing for today, all I wanted to do was share some folk music that moves me. Blessedly, they were patient and collaborative.

Back to the Country; Tim McGraw:
I went sky divin'
I went rocky mountain climbin'
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull name Fumanchu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I've been denying
And he said someday I hope you get the cha
nce To live like you were dyin'

They speak the language I aspire to. Shouldn’t I know that the present is all there is?
Easier said than done.
I need help.

Lately I have been clocking time at appointments with my mom, all of the therapies- Speech, Occupational, Physical. And, with about 8 doctors, from Neurology to Podiatry, we visit them all. Here’s what I’ve learned. It is annoying, exhausting and even disheartening. And, it is often comforting, inspirational and even, community building. Those practitioners, administrative staff and fellow patients have become our support system. We share day-to-day narratives, joys and sorrows. We observe people who have major disabilities and those who appear to have no problems at all. I have come to look forward to those occasions, when I am invited to, share the load, relate and feel less alone in the responsibility I carry. What was a burden of schedule and attention has become a joy, almost a time-out. …Surprise!

In the new year, I will leave my desk for a few months of sabbatical leave,… a treasured time for review, reflection and renewal of my work and my being. A few years ago I had thought of sabbatical as time to complete graduate school. Now, the reality is that I completed my degree and that this time has coincided with the precious and challenging family chapter, just mentioned. Will I manage to blend the two? Yes.

This unparalleled opportunity for sabbatical presents another big challenge for me, whose daily existence has been completely linked to this congregation. How will I ever pause? What have I been waiting for?

In her short, sweet volume, Did I Say That Out Loud? UU minister, writer and singer, Meg Barnhouse is hilarious on this subject. She says she used to have two speeds, a hundred miles an hour and full stop. Crash.

I quote. “I thought I was supposed to go and go at full speed until I couldn’t go any longer, then I slept. Then I’d wake up and start again. As I get older I’m adding more gears. I have “slow” now. Some days.”

She mentions one of her holy books, the I Ching and the wisdom of not doing. How it teaches that it is tiring to forget and act like we are the sources of all.

And, she recounts the poet, Rilke, “how awkwardly swans move on the ground, becoming calm and pleased only once they let go, carried joyfully, by the water flowing beneath.

Barnhouse wishes for the wisdom to know when to paddle her feet and allow the waves to hold her up.” So do I. Do you?

Recently, I was gifted a little book by a friend called This Is Water. It begins with a tale of two young fish, swimming along, meeting a wise old fish who asks, “How’s the water?… Swimming on, the guppies look at each other and ask, “What the heck (hell) is water?”

Author, David Foster Wallace’s well-worn thesis is that we all make choices about what has meaning and what doesn’t. He calls it our “default setting.”, an automatic, unconscious way we give worth and power to each and every experience. The good news is that over our lifetimes, we have some possibility of learning to shift our priorities - each minute.
He calls this prospect the freedom of education.

Similarly, but from a different angle, in the book, Saving Paradise, by the Revs. Dr. Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, re-envision Christianity, theorizing that paradise is already present. We have neither to retrieve it nor construct it, but to perceive it and to bring our lives and cultures into accord with it. They contend that Christianity traded love of this world for crucifixion and empire.
If so, wouldn’t Christmas celebrate the wait being unnecessary?

Unlike the two young fish, swimming along, unaware of water, we might own and/or transform our perceptions.
What are we waiting for?

Will slowing down to float, smooth our paths to living and dying well? Will mindfulness clear some heart-space that supports a radically different culture, one that sees the aging process as laden with possibilities of fulfillment? Can’t hurt.

Nevertheless, like the determined march of the penguins, trudging through the cycle of seasons, many of us manage to treadmill along, in varying states of stress, denial and trepidation regarding change, aging and death.

Let’s imagine helping each other to be wholly alive in every moment of life’s mysterious transitions rather than waiting, in dread, for the endings? … What would that look like?
What would it cost? How might it feel?
It would take a sea-change.

I might begin the process by asking everyone to compose their own eulogies, a daunting, scary, and embarrassing exercise I did in graduate school. It was also quite enlightening. Being forced to face my own account of my life, was a tough, yet satisfying step in contemplating what’s next.
I highly recommend this.
Maybe it’s an adult RE program.

I believe that I am no longer waiting for the ninth wave, but rather, swimming along, hoping to find a place to float.
At least, to improve my stroke.
The time we have left to accompany my mother is limited.
And, our family is rejoicing in the birth of Wesley Sparks Theobold, my mom’s first great-grandchild.

This is a sacred season of light and hope and renewal.
That message is never old. We need it each year, especially in the northeast, in Providence, RI, when the dark and cold make it tough to dip into the ocean for reminders.

The winter holidays, a continuum of joy and sadness, draw us to this faith community, a place where we promise to swim together.

Of course there are always things to wait for, to discover. Sometimes we do feel alone and searching. We do seem, as Pat Humphries’ lyrics say, balanced on the brink of wisdom, impatient to receive a sign.

A 1st U Prudential Committee Board member once shared words by MaryJean Iorn. They express some of my wish for us all.

Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so.

The beach is still my sacred space. Next, I may go there to find balance, to feel more deeply, to know the water. I am finally learning that we can choose our own default perceptions- when we sit and wait for our turn in the checkout line, on the crowded highway or in a doctor’s office.

Maybe we are waiting for something.
To hear our own heart’s song more clearly,
to focus our lives through lenses of gratitude,

And, as we float, to lovingly guide each other as we swim to the other side.