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A sermon by DRE Cathy Seggel delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, December 9, 2012

Ripples of Hope, Glimmers of Light

Come into this place,
There are healing waters here
and hands with soothing balm
to ease your troubled days.
Bring your wounds and aching hearts,
your scars too numb to feel.
Your questions and complaints
are all welcome here.
Rest awhile.
Let the warmth of this community
surround you,
hold you,
heal you.

When you feel stronger,
just a bit,
notice those who need you too.
They are here.
They are everywhere.
Weep with them.
Smile with them.
Work with them.
Laugh along the way.
Pass the cup.
Drink the holy fire.
Take it with you
into the world.

We are saved
and we save each other
again, again,
and yet again.

Saved by Theresa Novak
(Read while choir sang Healing Prayer by Nick Page.)

This moment in the cycle of the year has become my turn to share from this pulpit. Our minister, James, is at an annual intensive zen meditation retreat, Sesshin. While he sits, in silence, for hours and hours, waking each day at 4:30am, as he says, “to stare at the wall,” I am bestowed with the awesome and terrifying responsibility to reflect on the linked messages of Advent, Chanukah, Light in the darkness, what we wait for. Not only that.

You should know: Cold weather is not one of my favorites & Darkness is not my time to shine.

With that said, I can tell you that I have found some ways to cope with all of that, having lived in the NE of the US all of my life. And, still have a long way to go... I continue to need help. I am consistently inspired and heart-filled through relationships with people of all ages. It is no secret that I have a special connection with young adults. It was no coincidence that 2 Brown grads, campus ministry leaders, best friends, were to be reunited, in Providence, this very weekend. And then, they said Yes....I am so happy that Chelsea Waite & Charlie Hunt are here, to share their anticipations. Soon.

Over the past weeks, I have researched much about this season, from Pagan rituals to Christian theology. Later, if you'd like, I can share the links, Facebook entries, blogs and books that were muddled through. What rose to the top as a text for reflection was not an academic volume, but Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott. Her thoughts have become tightly laced with mine. Thus, I proudly attribute all credit to Annie. It has been the case, more than once, that when I am feeling a pesky, undefinable need, a longing in the cockles of my bones - more demanding than my devoted family, fabulous therapist, respected colleagues and dear friends can soothe, Anne Lamott writes another book that does the trick. Hits my Reset Button, Causes me to compose a fresh, Memo, to myself.

Her latest, little, Big book, Help, Thanks, Wow, The 3 Essential Prayers, opened me to a fresh concept of the P word. Seems I had been stuck on where the prayer was going, rather than on its innate effect on the Pray- er.

Maybe some of you grew up as praying people. I did not. My mom and dad, similar to Ms. Lamott's, were too hip to pray. They went to the Church, actually the Temple of the NY Times. In fact, one of the saddest aspects of my mom's decline is that her macular degeneration has prevented her from reading. Back to the idea of praying for a minute. Lately, I have been wondering if a pause, with eyes open or closed, might be a way, like spiritual antibiotics, to get some light and air to the dark musty places we find ourselves in. After all, being stuck in our own gunk is sometimes appealing. Meg Barnhouse calls this, dramatic & delicious despair. Easy.

Could saying or praying, HELP be a way to stop in our tracks and breathe?Causing the tiniest of shifts, that may let the light in, to see beyond our pain, to something deep inside.

In order to get to the “help” spot, I guess we have to admit that we might be flawed... to accept that self-sufficiency can be overrated. Some of us are busy, taking care of others and that's fine. Overwhelming, but considered, good work. You know what I mean- our children of all ages, partners, friends, co-workers, even aging parents.

Sometimes I behave as if saying “help” is an unacceptable sign of weakness. Many sages have spoken to this vulnerability. A Leonard Cohen lyric comes to mind, “Ring the bells that still can ring / forget your perfect offering / there is a crack in everything / that's how the light gets in." So, HELP.

Moving on to THANKS- Even though we have been focusing on gratitude for these last few Thanksgiving season weeks, it must be mentioned. Small thanks or a smile, even. Any opening leads to the chance of relational flow- It can be for averting danger, avoiding illness or pain, for health, good day at work or being spared something worse. Whether exuberance or just plain relief - It is an appreciation for a break, a time out, in dealing with something. We are supposed to know that Life goes in cycles, from lovely to painful, ordinary days..then locusts, etc. And, there are no codes for dealing.

Annie's thesis is that lots is always being revealed, if we can just pay attention. I quote, “Gratitude begins in our hearts and dovetails into behavior. gratitude leads to service, and THAT is where JOY resides.” THANKS.

Her final key word is WOW- This means we aren't dulled to wonder. We have experiences that leave a thumbprint on our hearts. They come in all shapes and sizes.

I love this part: Spring is the main reason for Wow. And, Poetry is the official palace language of Wow. Things like magnificent music, just couldn't have originated on this side of things. Wow takes our breath away to make room for more breath. Is Awe why we're here? Upon finishing the book, I was left with ?s. Of course.

So, As a Unitarian Universalist, in Providence, RI in 2012, almost 13, What wows us into hope, on these darkest of dark days? What does our own tradition have to offer? Is there any clear guidance on the nature or existence of a God? The one, of many names? To whom do we look to, even pray to, to help us, to save us?

Many UU scholars, ministers, religious educators, devoted leaders and congregants have explored these questions. I studied the inspirational 20th Cen. UU theologian, James Luther Adams and others. One of my wise, young mentors, Jude Geiger, UU minister of RE, recently spoke about JLA's vision in a way that re-dedicated my temple of spirit, helped me anticipate what could be coming: He paraphrased the 5 Smooth Stones message of James Luther Adams:

1-Revelation is not sealed. In the unfolding of the human spirit we continuously experience life and our experience of truth, in new ways.

2-Relationships between people ought to be free. Mutuality and consent are both ethical and theological principles.

3-We have an obligation to work toward creating a Beloved Community. Our faith inspires us to the work of transformation, centered in justice and love. The prophethood of all believers has a corrective effect on systems of oppression.

4-Each child that's born is another redeemer. We are all potential sources of good in the world and each have a role to play. Goodness happens in relationships with one another.

5-We choose hope. Our resources, both sublime and mundane, hold all the capacity we need to transform the world.

Our UU theology is a faith statement and a process of reflection. It teaches us that we can expect to continue to be inspired, to learn from one another, and to seek out that spiritual growth. Whenever we freely choose to enter into communities, we are doing sacred work — not easy work, not convenient work, but holy work. In this, we are obligated to vigilantly transform systems of oppression with acts of love and compassion.

We all have the capacity to make this happen, and everything that we need to do so already exists.

There are reasons to hope in this world.

My spiritual practice is evolving. I admire James & Jan for their long term, devoted custom, their living commitment. Mine doesn't currently have me in a traditional prayer position. I feel most worshipful when listening to music. Yikes, I just remembered a song that a musician friend, Keith Arnold taught. The lyrics go something like this, “Walking, walking with you, walking with you is my prayer. Singing, singing with you, singing with you is my prayer. Laughing, crying with you. You get the picture.

My ability to pause often happens on walks. These natal moments, feelings of connection, could be described as help, thanks, wow events. But, I fall out of the walk habit. I allow the weather, the light, almost anything, to get in the way. Maybe you understand? All I know for now, is that paths to to noticing little things is an essential element in my ability to hope, anticipate and re-dedicate again, and again and again.

This week, when I finally hauled myself out for one measly walk, here's some of what I was able to take-in.

*A letter carrier, saying aloud that he was glad it was not raining.

* A very senior man with what had to be his 100 year old dog. As they partnered along it was impossible to tell if the man was out to help his pet or whether, instead, the dog/pal was there to help the man.

* A little girl, about 6 years old, pedaling a frilly pink bicycle only a few yards to park at her school bus stop. The mom, carefully watching from their front stoop, retrieving the bike once her baby was nested safely on the yellow bus. WOW.

Just as people have done forever, this Advent, Chanukah, Christmas, Solstice time, I trust you find a pause, to recognize that hope, replacing fear, begins in the dark.

And, Look for seed bundles on trees. They are already set, in anticipation.

From Sufi poet, Hafiz. “Friends do things like this- Tell which mat their house key is hidden under. For, you would not believe the extraordinary view of God from my bedroom window.”

As promised, Charlie & Chelsea:

[Charlie Hunt]
During the holiday season, I often find myself looking back. I return from the chaos and constant change happening in my life during the rest of the year; I return home. I see the Christmas tree my parents still put up and decorate, and am reminded of the year our cat decided to climb it, and subsequently tip it over, destroying a large portion of our living room. I hear the Lionel train set running around the tree, and am reminded of my younger days, when I would sit for hours and watch, captivated, as it circled the tree again and again. I see the stockings with our names stitched on them, and am reminded of a time I can't even remember, when my mom sewed them herself before I was even born.

These moments aren't just pleasant memories, and I'm not just feeling nostalgic; though they are, and I am. Celebrating these traditions doesn't simply give us the warm comfort of familiarity, though for me, it does. It's much more than that.

It's something we sing every Sunday in this Meeting House. It's a living tradition. It's steeped in decades, centuries, millennia-old stories, practices, and generations of families. Yet, we sing the living tradition every week, and we feel it every time this season comes around. In a strange, yet I believe beautiful, juxtaposition, we look forward to the traditions of the past.

This season often brings about change, and this change becomes more evident with each passing year. My family looks a little different from the way it did last Christmas, when it looked a little different from the way it did the one before. But it is still my family.

Each passing year, we all bring new recipes to the holiday cookbook, new loved ones into our collective family, and new experiences to our collective experience. We all anticipate the feeling of "home" we get when we're together again, but we also anticipate what's next, the things we don't yet know, and the ways this season will be a little bit different next year.

Certainly this congregation looks a little different than it did last year, and the year before that. New life has emerged, and along with it new anticipation for the miracles those lives will make. Yet while our congregation has changed in so many ways over the years, our church remains the same. Our fellowship remains strong. We honor our holiday traditions and memories of the past; we share our experience here together today; and we look forward with unbridled anticipation towards what next year will bring.

I am not as captivated by the Lionel train set as I used to be; but these days, my two year old nephew couldn't be pried away from it if we tried, which we wouldn't dare. My mom continues to stitch into stockings the names of new additions to our family. Our past continues to have many great traditions in store for us to anticipate every year; but so, I think, does our future.

[Chelsea Waite]
Just over nine months ago, I sat at New York's JFK airport waiting to fly to Petrolina, Pernambuco, in the northeast interior of Brazil, for nine months. I had so many anticipations that, at the time, I wasn't sure how to describe them.

Looking back, I think the only clear anticipation I had was that my perspective on some basic given things in my life would change completely. I knew that living in a relatively isolated Brazilian town would give me some more opportunities for questioning everything I'd taken for granted before. If I had one concern, it was that I wasn't sure how my life up until that point would fit in-especially when it came to Unitarian Universalism. The nearest Unitarian church was in the state's capital, an 8-hour bus ride away.

In the first months of my new life in Petrolina, it became clear that my anticipated perspective-shift would prove correct. I taught in a public state college and felt both the advantages and disadvantages of a completely free university system. I fell in love and was confronted with both class and culture disparities that brought up questions and issues I had never thought of before. I led thirty students on a four-day English immersion experience on an island, the first time they had ever been asked to speak English for more than a class period at a time.

Where did my faith fit in? It started with a rather startling realization. There were two other American women English teachers in Petrolina. At one of our early lunches together, we discovered that we are all UU. There are less than a million UUs in the US, and three of them happen to be in a remote interior city in Brazil. Seems like a huge coincidence.

Maybe it is, by the numbers. But as we know, statistics are only useful if you take into account the corroborating information. I'm not saying that non-UUs are unlikely to go abroad and do the kind of work we did, but I'm saying that it is the kind of work that's particularly fitted-or attractive-to a UU mindset. Work that empowers people to take greater control of their lives. Work that might have greater payback for the human spirit than for the bank account. Work that requires you to have open definitions of what we often take for granted. I put this last skill into practice almost every day in Petrolina.

So where did my faith fit in? Everywhere, even without the church building, even without my mentors and friends like Cathy and Charlie, even without Sunday BUUUG meetings. If I had worried when I left about what would become of my faith when I left the comfort of its structure, I now know that I can relax: wherever I go, Unitarian Universalism follows me.

I wrote most of this reflection sitting in the JFK airport, this time coming back from Brazil. This time, filled with new anticipations. As always, these anticipations come with worries and preoccupations, too. But this time, I know what one of my worries won't be: where my UUism lives outside the church. Like the holiday lights, Unitarian Universalism will always help to illuminate my way of my anticipations.