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A sermon by DRE Cathy Seggel and Halcyon Westall, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, December 8, 2013

The Warm and Flickering Light of Hope

Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.

The mind's power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting

Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.

Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Hoard bread,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.

You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?

Choose to bless the world.
There is an embrace of kindness that encompasses all life, even yours.

None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility waiting.

— Choose to Bless the World by Rebecca Parker (except) Read by Elias Ellison, Brown class of '17

Cathy: This season's darkening days and holidays touch on the human experience of waiting, inner preparation, quiet. Globally, since ancient times, festivals of light celebrated sacred days, to soothe the ebb and flow of hope, freedom, death and life. Humans have looked forward: for courage to face challenges, for anger, envy, and hatred to vanish, for peace to prevail, reconciliation with family and friends, paths to useful, life-sustaining work, for ways to calm doubts and fear. For the birth of a child. For miracles, in our time. The shortest day and the longest night are approaching. Christmas is coming. As Unitarian Universalists, who draw wisdom from many sources to make meaning, answering a call for transformation, what are we waiting for?

There is good news. I invited my colleague and friend, Halcyon Westall, to reflect, along side me, about how we might find light in the darkness and what we, as Unitarian Universalist are waiting for. Is there a saving message? And, what on what paths will we send our children?

This particular week, I share from this pulpit, while our minister, James and his wife, Jan, sit in silence, at an intensive Zen meditation retreat, Sesshin. I have not found such a spiritual practice. This cold time of year is not my favorite & darkness is not my time to shine. I tend to gravitate to inspirational music and role models. I just listened to Tom Chapin's family song, Mother Earth's Routine. "There are reasons for changing seasons, You have to change to grow. Mother Earth's about to changes her gown."

I know this. What's the rub? Don't I say that change is my middle name?

This week, as we mourn the death and celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, I appreciate these words of Rev. Naomi King, "I am intensely grateful for his perfectly imperfect example of a faithful life."

He believed that education is the most powerful weapon used to change the world. He, himself, stated that he was only a saint if that meant a sinner who keeps on trying. Is that us?

Not coincidentally, Anne Lamott's latest treasure, Stitches, A Handbook on Meaning, Hope & Repair, was recently published. I attribute Annie as having informed this message, fully crediting her words, that soothe my own, inner board meeting. You know, the one that has no time boundaries, awakening a person at 3am, keeping them fretting, anytime. It focuses on how to keep on keepin' on, endure, in tough times.

Hard stretches range from as benign and entitled as my situation this month; way too much to do, not enough time, too many people to care for. Like Ms. Lamott, I probably picked up my first clipboard as a 6 year old. One piece of the overload is the honor of serving on the Program Development Group for General Assembly in Providence. It's a well done, complicated process, during which I finally learned to really use Google Docs. We sort over 300 workshop proposals into No, Yes and Maybe categories, knowing they won't fit into far fewer available slots.

This challenges my mind and heart. I tend to see gray, to quest balance.

And, the much more serious anxieties, like the unimaginable pointless death of children tragedy in Newtown CT, almost a year ago, or natural disasters, like typhoons that threaten our planet or friends and family, dying too young. What can serve as strong thread to hold us together top unravel that pain?

Theologian and TED prize winner, Karen Armstrong's thesis insists that COMPASSION is the answer, the thread that connects all faiths and the wisdom of all religions. Compassion, defined as "to feel with the other, not feel sorry for." That the reason for religion is to let ourselves go, not to be right. As far back as Confucius, faith traditions have been calling us to do what we can to make the world a kinder place, all day in every way. "Do nothing to another that you would not want done to you." That means prioritizing the bigger picture, the community. If we can just remember it's not all about us. That what we are waiting for is already here. Recalling Armstrong's contention that when we get rid of ego, then, we are ready to see the divine.

We know Nelson Mandela felt this, chose reconciliation over revenge.

That still leaves me patching my way to comfort, naming the mysterious energy that is greater than what I can control. Annie would say, “God, as shorthand for the Good, the animating energy of Love. For Life, for the light that radiates from within people and from above; in the energies of nature, even in our rough, messy selves.

Perhaps maturity means being able to live with unresolved problems.

Originally, I asked Halcyon to share about her work for The Fahs Collaborative, at Meadville Lombard Theological School, a laboratory for leaders in faith and learning, a place for finding innovation, forging paths through the murky unknown in UU religious education where we challenge ourselves to sit with chaos. Wait with it awhile, percolating vision. Next time.

When we learned of Nelson Mandela's passing, Halcyon offered and I asked her, instead, to tell her story of connection.

Halcyon: They stuck round yellow stickers on us as we walked through the singing crowd. Wandering around London, a gaggle of high school sophomore tourists broken away from the not so watchful eyes of our chaperones, we meandered around Trafalgar Square, listening to people handing out leaflets. “Freedom Now!” they cried. And I, a young teen girl from Newport, thought,"Yeah, Freedom! I know what that means. I know how much I want to feel free." But, really, I wasn't sure exactly what was going on.

I did know that Everyone Should Be Free.

Needing to get back to our tour group, we didn't stay long. I remember the energy of the rally, the immediacy of their cries for freedom. I was feeling glad for this moment of connection with something big, something important. Connection with something way beyond my circle of friends, a larger truth. "Freedom Now!"

I boarded the tour bus, and as I energetically stepped past the driver he saw my stickers and snarled, "So... You support Murderers, do you?"

Shocked at the hatred in this strangers face, I had no reply. I moved back and took my seat. What was it about this little yellow circle picturing a black man's face that made the driver lash out at a fourteen year old girl? His reaction made me vow to find out more about the face on the sticker. Who was this “Nelson Mandela”? And what...was Apartheid?

Once home, I learned more about South Africa, Apartheid, the boycotts, and calls for divestment. I learned that the rally in Trafalgar Square was the first days of a multiyear nonstop picket of the South African Embassy. I occasionally wrote letters with Amnesty International. I would “helpfully inform” my peers, as they sipped, why they shouldn't drink Coca Cola (an investor in South Africa.) The great Ska song, “Free Nelson Mandela” went on every mixed tape I made for a couple years...given to friends far and near. My actions were small and based in my privilege as a white girl in Rhode Island.

It's not the impact of my contribution to the Antiapartheid movement that is significant, though. The fact that I was aware of this man half a world away, that I cared about this one of thousands of global political prisoners, and was moved to act at all, is amazing.

In the past couple of days, I have been trying to explain to my kids why Mr. Mandela is so important to me and the whole world. It's not easy to find the words. In fact, I hadn't really understood that this man, whom I never met, of whom I can't even claim to be a close follower, helped shape his story is part of my story.

Nelson Mandela literally became the face of a global campaign against Apartheid. Within South Africa, a ban on his image meant that as the years of imprisonment turned to decades, most people weren't even sure what he looked like anymore - he became a near mythological figure.

Emily Dickinson wrote,
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

Hope was the face on my yellow sticker that surged hatred in the white London bus driver. Hope was the power of connection I felt with the crowd picketing the South African Embassy.

The South African government was correct in knowing Mandela's face could stir a nation, but they underestimated the power of hope that stirred the world. They thought that without a picture, everyone would forget Mandela, that as his image faded, his power would fade away. Imprisonment did not keep his ideas from changing the world. Isolation did not keep Mr. Mandela from influencing the next generations of activists and shaping ideas on how best to reconcile his country.

And after finally, finally, the South African government realized they could no longer hold out economically or politically, Apartheid was dismantled. Mandela was released. And we all watched. What does all that waiting do to a spirit? Would he be hardened? Bitter? Apathetic?

At the start of his prison term in 1964 on Robben Island, Mandela wrote: "In prison you come face to face with time. There's nothing more terrifying." While I have not endured the inhuman conditions of decades-long imprisonment, I can identify with these words. We are all, at times, locked in situational or psychological torment. We wait.

Theologian Henri Nouwen tells us that waiting is a positive time, is an act of promise. He wrote, "Those who are waiting are waiting very actively. They know that what they are waiting for is growing on the ground on which they are standing. That's the secret. The secret of waiting is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun. Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and you want to be present to it. A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment." (Waiting on God)

Waiting is not empty time. Even a place of darkness, pain, and chaos is full of rightness. This sort of active waiting requires faith and hope. It requires admitting that we do not have the right answers, that we do not know where we are going- but that we know we will get there.

Waiting time becomes pregnant with possibility. Waiting is creating space for unknown growth, change, and grace in our lives. After 27 years of impossible conditions, Mr. Mandela found the grace to lead South Africa in an astonishing truth and reconciliation process.

But even in his solitary prison cell, Mandela was not alone. Ideas passed among African National Congress inmates. Certainly he worked with countless partners in creating a new South African society after he was released. We don't do this alone. So often stories of change seem superhuman and even intimidating. Not being heroes, we isolate ourselves, immobilized by fear and despair. Nelson Mandela is a global symbol of human rights. He was an incredibly powerful, intelligent, and inspiring man, who met baffling challenges. He also was no more amazing than you are. You have all the strength, the access to grace and hope that he did.

Our Unitarian Universalist faith is a hope filled faith. Unitarian Universalism teaches us that our purpose is to the shape the world into our image of love. That we are not only worthy of love, but compelled to make our understanding of love real in the world. And that we are not alone.

We are connected to each other and to a source of love. We create this world together. When one is resting, another gives support. We take turns acting and waiting in various degrees, our strength and forward progression depends on trusting this collective effort, even if we can't see what's ahead.

While we wait for the return of the light, how might we embrace Unitarian Universalism's collective power of hope for ourselves? For our families? How are we partnering with our Source to make Love real in our world?

Cathy: Whoever told us it would be easy? But, maybe, just maybe, we can be helped. The repair may come from other beings, human or not. Or, it might be reinforced by something greater than ourselves. Either or both are welcome, here. I do believe that our sources for making meaning evolve throughout our lifetimes.

We can be helpers and we can and should take our turn being helped!

The secret of life is patch, patch, patch. Thread your needle, make a knot, find a place on the torn cloth where a stitch will hold. And, do it again and again and again.

I now know that my decisions about GA programming will be good - enough. I was placed on the team for who I am.

I now know that this sermon got finished.

More importantly, I can hope, that individuals, like Nelson Mandela, will put themselves aside, will choose to stand on the side of love. Will be in it for the long haul.

It helps that some people have been assigned to us and we, to others.

The world is dangerous and unpredictable.

What if teachers, mentors, family and friends could say, "If I keep you company, do you want to make friends with your heart?"

Like Madiba, they and we would be calling forth beings from hopelessness.

Staying the course, stitch by stitch.