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A sermon by Cathy Seggel, Director of Religious Education with Emily Bruce & Lisa Sampson, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, December 7, 2014

BLESSINGS IN THE DARK — Reflections on Hope

Each day provides us with an opportunity to love again,
To hurt again, to embrace joy,
    to experience unease
    to discover the tragic
Each day provides us with the opportunity to live,
This day is no different, this hour no more unique than the last,
Except...Maybe today, maybe now,
Among friends and fellow journeyers,
Maybe for the first time, maybe silently,
We can share ourselves.

Each Day by Kristen Harper

CATHY Part I This reflection, "Finding blessings in the dark," refers to my personal challenges around darker, colder days. Rev. Wayne Arnason refers to it as "navigating the tricky shoals of December."

As I began the terrifying and satisfying process of tearing this sermon from my less than happy heart, glimmers of relief showed up. Like tiny massage therapists, easing away tight muscles, came a book or two, a friend's wisdom, an ability to pay attention, to sort. This process of locating comfort became the gift that I grudgingly give to myself, in order to share it with you.

The roles I've played; daughter, mother, teacher, nurse, DRE cause me to think in multigenerational terms. I know that all we teach our children, by our words or by their observations of, is important. I know we are modeling our values, our anticipations, how we find hope. Last week, in young people's chapel, I wove together words from UU sources that encouraged hope and the belief that, together, we stand on the side of love so that all children grow up safe and surrounded by a society that loves them for who they are. The prayer/meditation was to Remind us of police officers who love justice, of journalists who search for peace, of protestors who are gentle, of devastated parents who urge quiet, of allies who cast solidarity from far away. I want to avoid protecting our children so much that they miss learning opportunities and don't get to hear stories of and practice courage. I am also keenly aware of the balance; not scaring the youngest while challenging the adolescents.

Recently, I have been blessed to collaborate with two young members of our congregation; each tuned in to their own soul work, each in vocational discernment, both teacher and learner. They imagined developing personal credos, like our coming of agers and have created opportunities for similar exploration for their peers, well beyond 8th grade. When it's my turn, up here, I like to share the pulpit. Soon, Emily & Lisa will voice some of what is informing their spiritual search, likely to be the best part of the sandwich — the middle.

On the weekend closest to December 8, our minister, James and his wife, Jan keep a long tradition of going to an intensive Sesshin, meditation retreat, honoring the Buddhist Rohatsu or Bodhi Day when Siddhartha achieved enlightenment. Coincidentally, it is a celebration of possibility. Seems connected to our theme today.

As Unitarian Universalists, drawing wisdom from a combination of theologies, the Christian Advent tradition, begs questions for us all: What are we looking forward to with holy anticipation? How are we preparing? What are we waiting for? How does that feel?

Focusing on these questions, I hunted for guides. One little miracle was finding Episcopal Priest, Barbara Brown Taylor's latest book, "Learning to Walk In The Dark." She posits a need for spirituality that works in the nighttime; a lunar rather than full solar spirituality. She takes the reader on her journey, understanding the darkness in herself, noticing pockets of insights gained from dark times. Prior to electricity, humans had more reason to pray for light. In our era, it seems that this theological language of color creates problems, programming us to what's good and bad, pitting the dark stuff against the light, implying untrue negativity about dark skinned or sight impaired people.

I must admit, I have been having trouble staying hopeful. I feel sad, discouraged, and impatient. "Enough is Enough." "Black lives Matter." "I Can't Breathe." But, James encouraged me to keep today's hopeful theme, in spite of the toll that current events are taking on our spirits.

As Annie Gonzalez, a youth/young adult ministry colleague shared, "Waiting can be discouraging. Can be demoralizing. Can bring despair, paralysis, denial, a turning off. Waiting can feel passive. During Advent we are called to wait differently. We are called to active, hopeful waiting."

Also providing balance in my hope-seeking challenge was Anne Lamott's Small Victories: Finding Improbable Moments of Grace. I need her humorous style of embracing the beauty, mystery and pain of life. Tidbits of what I gleaned from reconsidering hidden blessings in the dark, fishing for small victories in ever stormy seas of fear, anger and disappointment are:
  • Learn to fall better/harder by not being so afraid of falling that you miss out on the ride, the fun. meaning, the goal. I'm a pretty careful creature, passing on activities like bunji jumping. I have nervously held my tongue when hurtful, oppressive comments were stated in my company. What am I afraid of? It's time to risk more freely. Dr. King had words to explain, "One of the great misfortunes of history is that all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution."

  • It is best not to look for only those bright, Broadway lights. We can more often spot those smaller, twinkly lights. On evergreens and wrapped around everything from lampposts to wreaths. On warmer days, hanging on outdoor porches, boats, anywhere. They bathe us in just enough light, not shocking and over-inquisitive, more gentle, holding us, just tightly enough. A letter to a congressperson that effects positive change, a dear friend's remission diagnosis, a child sharing their appreciation for your time. Have you heard about the Ohio retirement community where students from the Cleveland Institute of Music also live. The young adults trade performances for free rent, injecting life into the elder community while creating meaningful friendships.

  • Next, It's okay to embrace the dark instead of purely trolling for light. To actually move in it, with it. Contrary to what the lazy side of my brain contends, in spite of the weather or hours of daylight, it is always therapeutic to walk, stretch, lift weights, dance, March!, do something physical. Not news, but worth saying aloud.

  • And, "We are the ones we've been waiting for." I imagine that you have heard that expression. There's mixed data on its origin, from Hopi elders to poet, June Jordan. For me, the phrase points to a foundational theology a call to believe in the promise of forming a just and compassionate society, building the beloved community on a progressive path. There are no guarantees. We have to pay attention. Sometimes our confidence flags. That's where hope can come in. In UU hymns, we sing, "I'll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find." Or, "Gather in hope, compassion and strength, gather to celebrate, once again." A strand of our tradition is that heaven is right here and we have to realize it. That means that the things we hope for in the future are completely available to us right now. Time to claim that, bring our lives and transform our cultures into accord with it. Then, Celebrate. My faith shows me that I am in perpetual preparation to make positive change, through love. UU scholar, Rev. Dr. Thandeka calls it, "A love beyond belief."

On a lighter note, I couldn't resist quoting Ann Lamott here: "I think I need help" is something I force myself to say, every few years." As a Shy Extrovert, I KNOW I need help. Here they are, EMILY & LISA.

EMILY BRUCE When Cathy first asked me to write a short piece on hope for this week's sermon, I was delighted. Writing about hope was just such a hopeful thing — it would be easy, and fun to write about something as uplifting as hope. But as I started writing, as I threw out drafts and started over several times — I began to realize a new truth. Hope is hard. Real hope is really hard.

When I was younger, I was fairly idealistic. I believed in fairy tales. I always hoped it would snow at Christmas, despite the fact that I lived in the deep south. I was a firm believer in that old trope "Things Will Always Work Out For The Best." That's what hope was to me. It was easy to be hopeful, you didn't really need to do much except to say "I hope it all works out" and the universe would take care of the rest. I didn't realize until I started writing this talk just how much my worldview has changed. The reason I said real hope was so hard is because I now see that real hope is active. When you have real hope, you have to take action. It's not enough to sit there and say "Oh, I hope it all works out"; you have to do everything you can to cause this thing you want to come into being. Otherwise, what's the point of hope?

Hope is what convinced me to move to Providence, to leave behind all of my friends and a life of 13 years in New York. It was one of the scariest things I've ever done -but I desperately needed to take a step towards the life I wanted to live. It was my first step away from safety and comfort, my first step away from the idealistic hope of my childhood. It was my first moment of REAL hope. And unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the beginning of a tremendous unfolding that I never would have seen coming. I bought my first home here — a beautiful sanctuary for which I'm grateful every single day. I found community here — at First U, in my neighborhood, in groups of friends — so much so that it overwhelms me. And I found God again. Not the God that I knew as child, but a more encompassing, more loving and far wiser energy in my life than I've ever known.

And the latest in this unfolding is that I've finally acknowledged a calling deep within me to go to seminary. The idea has been batting around in my brain for the better part of a decade, but it was so audacious that I didn't even bother giving it credit. I didn't possess a shred of hope that I was worthy of such a calling.

I think real hope waits for us. It waits — sometimes years — for us to start shedding our fears and our insecurities and finally take that step into the light. And I think that's what I'm trying to do. And I'm just so glad I finally showed up. To paraphrase a short but powerful Mary Oliver quote: "And I say to my heart: hope on."

LISA SAMPSON One night about a year ago, my roommate and I were sitting in the living room watching the 6 o'clock news when a dreaded all too familiar thing happened. A student from Juanita Sanchez high school, the school I've worked at years, had been murdered. I held my breath, waiting for the name, and when it flashed across the screen I was relieved (in that way that feels sad a guilty) that I had not known him well. Still, I understood how this event would impact my students. Grief, anger and fear of retaliation. My roommate consoled me.

The next day, there we were again — my roommate and I watching the news. There was a breaking story that the police had caught the person responsible for the shooting. That ruthless murderer... was her student. And I consoled her.

In that moment, it's painfully clear that you don't blame one and mourn the other. You mourn both. You know how James says every week that we must remember that in the wars raging across this globe ultimately, of course — there is only one side. One family. One interconnected web. Well, in that moment it felt as if James were whispering in my ear. I told you so.

Divisions are artificial, but they are the way we organize the world when we are angry, hurt and scared. In a city where young people kill and get killed, where do we find hope? Moreover, I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the fact that over the past few weeks our nation, our one nation has been no stranger to these feelings. Here and now, where do we find hope in the darkness that is fear, pain and anger? To me the answer is that we face it head on. With vulnerability, an open heart and a deep knowledge that us vs. them is not the game that we're playing. That, to me, is hope. Not the thing that inspires the action - but the action itself is hope.

In the midst of co-leading last year's budget drive, and — if you can believe it — because of last year's budget drive — I made the decision to go to seminary. I can't recall when it happened exactly but can only say that the idea one day went from being an absurd thought to and indisputable truth seemingly without my awareness. As if my heart went ahead made the decision without my mind being present — knowing it would object.

This choice, to leave the field of urban education is not a step away from the front lines of these issues, but rather an expression of my deep belief in what church can be.

I'm sure of this decision because I'm scared. And I'm scared because I'm sure. Hope, sometimes, is not walking away from the darkness, but walking right into it.

In anticipation of what's to come, one piece of advice that I got from a current seminary student has stuck with me. She said that if you don't get your shit together, you're going to hurt somebody. Hope is being vulnerable and facing, honestly, perhaps for the first time, the things in life that have hurt me the most. Because, to heal myself is to have the room in my heart and mind to heal others.

I'm also eager to directly confront the question as to whether or not I believe in God. And yet, I'm scared. Scared to be entering a theological school that is predominately Christian having to face how Christianity has contributed to pain in my life and then giving it an honest, fair look. Scared to be in inter-faith dialogue without knowing exactly where I stand.

All of this, to me, is Hope.

Let me end by saying this.

Thank you. This church has brought me to this moment in my life. The experience of growing as a leader here has challenged me to claim my gifts and offer them to the world. And this community's belief in me, has given me the courage to fail. To be seen, to connect, to break and to heal. And that is hope. It is walking into the dark.

CATHY Part II Conclusions: You are worthy. Even I am. From Annie "You can change the world with a hot bath, if you sink into it knowing that you are worth profound care, even when you're dirty and rattled. Who knew?" Please take good care of yourselves along the way. Support one another, authentically and deeply. Our opening reading recommends we "share ourselves."

I queried friends and family about where they find hope. Their responses, without exception, "in the shelter of each other, in the promise of children and in opportunities to make healthy change." How about you?

According to UU author John Taylor "If there were no Advent, we would need to invent it. We human creatures, in spite of all that has happened to us and been done to us, are still hopeful. Something new, something vital, something promising is always coming, and we are always expecting."

What and/or who are we waiting for?

We may anticipate the birth of a holy child. Or, an uplifting change of heart. Or, the return of longer days. Or, the clear mindfulness that is vital to realizing that what we need is already here.

Aren't we already sitting in a house of hope? Some creatures in nature require times of darkness and cold to utilize the stores of energy humming within them.

I leave you with words shared on the UUA Blueboat Blog from a song called The Canticle of the Turning, based on the Book of Luke:

My heart shall sing of the day you bring
Let the fires of your justice burn
Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near
and the world is about to turn.

May we all learn to move in the dark, while we very actively wait.