First Unitarian Church of Providence
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Picking Up the Pieces and Moving On
A sermon delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, May 1, 2016

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Our first reading this morning is from the Book of Revelations, Chapter 20:
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Our modern reading is by contemporary author Anne Lamott. It is from her biographical book, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year. It is a reflection upon the death of a close friend.
And I felt like my heart had been so thoroughly and irreparably broken
that there could be no real joy again,
that – at best – there might eventually be
a little contentment.

Everyone wanted me to get help and rejoin life,
pick up the pieces and move on,
and I tried to, I wanted to,
but I just had to lie in the mud
with my arms wrapped around myself,
eyes closed,
until I didn’t have to anymore.

Last week for Passover, our theme was about navigating our way through some of life's tight passages. Just as the Israelites passed through Mitzrayim, the narrow passages of Egypt, into freedom, life compels us all to pass through narrow channels at times. We talked about the value of having faith and about acting on that faith as a way of moving through those narrow straits. This week, we'll look at when things seem to get derailed or go in directions we hadn't necessarily intended, and about what we might do at those times. I think there's often a lot of similarity between getting through tight spots and having our plans disrupted.

Who could have guessed when, a month ago, I chose my sermon title for this morning, "Picking Up the Pieces and Moving On," that I'd actually be delivering this sermon today? Or just what pieces we might consider in need of picking up? Certainly not I. Although I did know we needed to have a plan in place just in case of this contingency.

A month ago, most of us, myself included, imagined that I would not be in the pulpit this morning. We imagined instead that this would be the final day of a candidating week; that at this moment, you would be listening to a fine sermon from your ministerial candidate, and that shortly after the sermon and the conclusion of worship, you would hold a congregational meeting on calling that candidate to be your new settled minister. Heck, I thought that I'd be somewhere on vacation at this moment. "The best laid plans," as they say.

Great appreciation is due to your Ministerial Search Committee for all of their hard work this year, which I can assure you is much more than you might imagine. And more, much thanks for their wise discernment in choosing not to bring forward a marginal candidate in the first and now in the second round of this year's search process. In the long run, they knew that to have done so would not have served you the church, well. It takes a great deal of vision and fidelity to that vision to keep from acquiescing to more expedient outcomes. Your Search Committee continues and will continue to serve you well.

Still, all of us are adjusting to a reality that might not have been at the top of our wish list for this congregation. We were all hoping that you might have claimed your new minister this morning. Still, we all knew that this was a possibility. And this morning, we learn that there will be no candidate forthcoming this year at all. So here we are, picking up the pieces of what might have been in order to move on into what yet might be. Fortunately this is not a tragic conclusion, perhaps just an inconvenient one.

Based on past experience, this congregation knows something about more difficult outcomes to ministerial searches. Still, maybe this current congregational experience, of moving on from what might have been to what yet might be, can provide a good analogy for looking into some of our own life experiences, of picking up the pieces and moving on, on a deeper, more personal level. I trust we will figure out how to live together for another year of interim work; truth is, I'm already looking forward to it.

More personally though, I trust that many of the surprises that come along the pathway of life are much more challenging in the picking up and moving on department. Sometimes those pieces can be much more jagged and sharp. Sometimes the moving on can seem like an almost insurmountable next step.

Funny about life. I don't think we always, or even often, get to choose what happens. But, if we are conscious, we do always get to choose our response to whatever might be. In perhaps one of the most profound books of the 20th Century, Man's Search for Meaning, Holocaust concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl spoke from his horrific personal experience when he wrote, "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies [the potential for] our growth and freedom." We might consider that our potential for spiritual and soulful integrity, as well as growth, is what lies in that fertile ground between stimulus and response.

Whatever happens to us (and that might include not having a ministerial candidate when we thought we would; or more wrenchingly, that might include any number of losses or unforeseen cataclysmic events), whatever happens to us that doesn't kill us, we still have life that can and might be lived towards greater spiritual fulfillment. How can that be when, for many if not most of us, bad things happen and often seem to keep happening? Over the years, I have counseled many dear people who have felt compelled to throw in the towel by ending it all. Some of them have been successful in their attempts at ending their lives, leaving behind them a wake of grief and sorrow. Others have left the door open though, giving life another chance.

Why for some of us is the question, "What can I do in order to cope?" when for others the question is so much more difficult, "How can I possibly survive this?” There are degrees of severity in despair and, while they are hardly insignificant in relation to our ability to find our way through to the other side, there are still common elements to the experience of despair itself.

Serious illness, mental illness, the loss or impending loss of loved ones, the loss of or failure to acquire a job, divorce … you fill in the blank. These are all outcomes that many of us bear to some extent much of the time. These are all derailments that none of us would choose. Sometimes they stack up though, and seem overwhelming. And there are no easy answers, certainly not that can be found within a 20-minute sermon.

I have to tell you that the more I am aware of any struggle I or others have in adapting to unforeseen circumstances, the more I find that there are at least two very pragmatic practices that we can engage in, as we attempt to respond to them. If we are going to go about picking up the pieces and moving on, we might want to think about including these pieces in our collection.

The first is reaching out to others and allowing them to make a difference in our difficult journeys. Last week I mentioned to you that some of my own darkest days were following a divorce nearly 45 years ago. Had it not been for the love and support of those nearest to me, I do not think I’d have made it through that time. They saved me.

I also remember the words to an Eric Anderson song that I sang to myself, over and over, during those darker moments. “Jesus, I’m falling, please see where I am. Help me to get around the next bend. And if you can’t save me, please send a friend, someone who’s been there and come back again.”

That leads to the other pragmatic practice I want to mention. Even though I've only been here a short while, you've likely heard me mention it more than once before. It's prayer. I'm not talking about praying to any supreme commander to let this cup pass from our lips. We’re not talking about praying that our problems will simply go away or undergo some kind of miraculous, magical fix.

We’re talking about praying the prayers of our heart – that we might be sustained by life, even when it is most tenuous; praying that we might have enough faith to get us around the next bend; sometimes praying that we might manage even to muster enough hope to feel that getting around the next bend is a worthwhile goal. We're talking about praying that, still in the midst of pain and suffering, we might have the grace to experience beauty in life, and gratitude for it.

We're talking about praying that, when our day comes, even as we face death itself, we might be alive to the possibilities of wonder and awe and gratitude, gratitude so strong that it might be one of the pieces that we have brought along to be a part of our very last breath. Even if our experience falls short of our prayers, we will have done more to have lived our lives more fully and meaningfully. Even if our experience falls short of our prayers, we will have lived in greater service to the mystery and wonder that has allowed for us to be here in the first place.

I trust that the book of Revelations is not one that is very often read or heard in this room. Even still, whether it is by Armageddon, or by fire or water, or by wasteful consumerism, the end of time, the end of this planet, will indeed arrive. We are not likely to determine the schedule of it, but if we are here, I would like to think that we could somehow still be capable of responding to a broken world, as many times as it is broken, with love, compassion, and a grateful heart. "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies [the potential for] our growth and freedom." (Frankl)

More pertinently perhaps, the end of our own days will surely come to each of us. Though it's also not likely to be on some time schedule that we have consciously set, if we are mindful, we will indeed have a front row seat. And even still, if we choose to be, we can, we will, be free to write the story, and to fill it with meaning and to underscore it with love for others, with love for life. We are always capable, should we choose to be, of picking up the pieces and moving on. We might well consider that our potential for spiritual and soulful integrity and growth is what lies in that fertile ground between stimulus and response.

A little story… Some of you may remember that a few years ago I rode my bicycle across the country. It was a rather daunting and an amazing journey. One of the experiences I had along the way speaks to our theme this morning. You might remember the name Greensburg, Kansas. It was in the news a few years back, when in 2007 Greensburg was almost completely eradicated from the Kansas landscape; 95% of it was actually razed by a Level V tornado. Eleven people died. It was not a minor derailment.

I had been deeply moved by the NPR reports and interviews that were aired in the days following the storm. So much so that I used one of them as a sermon illustration shortly after. Then, exactly two years later, when I was on the big bike ride, I found myself (quite unplanned) in Greensburg for the two-year commemoration of the storm. My riding companions and I spent the better part of that day there, meeting and talking with lots of the townspeople, many of them at a reopening celebration of the local John Deere tractor dealership.

What I experienced was nothing short of amazing. Greensburg was alive. There was new construction going up everywhere, as the residents went about creating their new Green community, so that they might be more true to the name Greensburg. The vitality and joy of that community were vibrantly palpable. I needed to know how they'd made that so. And so I asked just about everyone I talked to, "How have you been able to do this?"

I got pretty much the same answer from everyone I spoke with. "We banded together," they told me. "We buried our dead, and grieved our losses. We started working together to clean things up. Then, together, we decided we would rebuild. We determined that we would do that in a way that made ecological sense; and that environmentally responsible direction helped to energize us too. People came to town from all over the country to work with us."

And they went on with their answers: "We were grateful that we had survived. We were grateful for each other, and we were grateful for all those people who came to help us. And so we gave thanks. From that, we gained hope. And here we are."

They'd been willing to reach out to each other and to others; they reached out to that which is larger than us all. They'd been willing to open their hearts in prayer. A couple of important pieces for us all to consider when were gathering what's essential in order to embrace that which is yet to be – to reach out and to open our hearts in prayerful, soulful expression.

As a congregation, today you are facing something of setback, at least a minor setback, one that I trust you will navigate well in the coming year. As a congregation of living, breathing human beings, I trust that there are those among us in this room who are personally facing various levels of challenge, challenges that you may well be experiencing as a major derailment in your life. Eventually you will need to pick up the pieces and move on from whatever challenges those might be. And if you are not one of the folks currently in such an experience, you can be assured that one day, who knows when, you unquestionably will be.

So let this be our prayer, that we might live fully; that we might live for and with each other, and for all humanity, right up to the moment when we move beyond this life; that our hearts might be filled with faith and hope in the possibilities of goodness that always await our participation; that love might be the guiding light above us and the sustaining ground beneath our feet.

Picking up the pieces and moving on? We are always picking up the pieces and moving on. The question is, how do we want to do that? The answer is... Well, that's up to you to determine. Whatever your answer, I bid you a good journey, one filled with faith, hope and love.