“And The Water Was Rising” by Tracy Johnson
The First Parish of Watertown, Unitarian Universalist
January 18, 2015
Opening Words – “Invocation” by Angela Herrera from Reaching for the Sun
Don’t leave your broken heart at the door;
bring it to the altar of life.
Don’t leave your anger behind;
it has high standards
and the world needs vision.
Bring them with you,
and your joy
and your passion.
Bring your loving,
and your courage
and your conviction.
Bring your need for healing,
and your power to heal.
There is work to do
and you have all that you need to do it
right here in this room.
Reading – from Rebecca Parker in Soul Work
In 1976 I began a cross-country road trip, on my way to seminary. I traveled with a friend. We had time, so we decided to take back roads. On afternoon the road passed through rural western Pennsylvania. Late in the day, we came down through hill country into a valley. It had been raining hard, and as we neared a small town, we noticed blinking yellow lights warning of danger. We saw fields covered in standing water and passed several side roads blocked off with signs saying: Road Closed.
“Looks like they’ve had a flood here,” we said.
Coming into town, we crossed a bridge over a wide river. The water was high, muddy, flowing fast. Sandbags lined the roadway.
“Gosh,” we said, “They must have had quite a bit of high water to contend with here. Looks like it was a major flood!”
We headed out of town, following a winding country road, captivated by the evidence all around us that there had been a dramatic flood. Then we rounded a bend, and in front of us, a sheet of water covered the roadway. The water was rising fast, like a huge silver balloon being inflated before our eyes.
We stopped and started to turn the car around. The water was rising behind us as well. Suddenly we realized the flood hadn’t happened yesterday or last week. It was happening here and now. Dry ground was disappearing fast. We hurriedly clambered out of the car and scrambled to higher ground. Soaked to the bone, we huddled under a fir tree. No longer were we lodged in our familiar vehicle; the cold water of the storm poured down upon us, baptizing us into the present – a present from which we had been insulated by both our car and our misjudgments about the country we were traveling through.
Sermon – “And the Water Was Rising” by Tracy Johnson
So, there I was, 22 years old with a 3-1/2 year old in tow. I had just left an abusive marriage to my high school sweetheart and the father of my child that had variously involved his drug and alcohol addictions, suicidality brought on by the demons of his own childhood that I knew nothing about, and a level of violence, mostly toward himself, but occasionally toward us, that I had no experience with or means of understanding. I had left the comfort of my privileged upbringing only four years earlier; left the safety of my vehicle to embark on a life of my own. I had led a totally insulated life before that; had no idea of what lay ahead of me. Clearly the water had been rising for some time, but now it seemed to be coming faster and more recognizably.
I was a high school graduate and smart enough, but had no higher education, having opted for motherhood when it presented itself. I worked as a waitress and short order cook in a local breakfast and lunch diner that was walking distance from our apartment – a one bedroom on the second floor of an old divided up house; worked side jobs as a cashier, newspaper carrier, cocktail waitress and cook. Neighbors helped out with childcare – we looked out for one another – those of us on the edge. I had barely enough to get by on – actually, not enough at all, but get by I did! The poverty level at the time hovered around $8,000.00 a year – ridiculous if you think about the cost of living and I have no doubt it is still disproportionate now. I learned to use the system in those days and months and years, qualifying for food stamps, and heating assistance in the winters. I got my name on the waiting list with the local housing authority and eventually received rental assistance. I bought a very used car – a 1964 Chevy Malibu for $500.00 (Thanks, Dad!) and drove it until it would go no more; changed the oil myself and winterized in the fall. (Can’t you just see me underneath it on one of those rolling things that mechanics use; oil filter wrench in hand?!) Things were okay – not great, but okay. We lived a simple life, free of extravagances that had not held much attraction for me anyway. I overcame that first blush of embarrassment that seared through me as I paid for our groceries with the food stamps. I made my monthly trek a few towns away to the county welfare office to justify my need. It could have gone on like this forever I suppose, but living on the dole was not a part of my makeup. I knew there was a different kind of life – because I had lived it not that long ago.
The trick was how to cross that line between eligible and receiving to a sustainable existence. The problem was, and remains, that it isn’t really a line you cross; it is a chasm. When I say it took a leap of faith I mean it literally! Earning just slightly more would require that I forego assistance even if it didn’t in reality balance out. In time I decided to take that step and in the end it all came together as I found employment within the state that provided not much more in wages, but offered medical benefits for myself and Jennifer; something we had done without before.
We all acknowledge that the system is broken and I had the misfortune to see it first-hand. What I saw was that the system is not really there to help you out of your predicament. In fact, it feels as if its job is actually to keep you in your place – your place of poverty – your place in society. It feels very intentional. My privilege only served to frustrate me because I expected something more; some gradual reduction in aid as income increased until you were able to do it alone. But that’s not how it worked – it was all or nothing. It is no wonder that people end up on assistance for as long as they do. Unless you are able to maneuver your way into a good paying job, you take a chance; the ladder to success is often missing a rung or two here and there.
This is a story about someone who fell abruptly from a life of privilege to a life of poverty. Did I make poor choices to end up there? The first choice was a bad one, but it all spiraled rather quickly out of my control after that. And now when I see someone who has fallen into dire straits I say a prayer of sorts – softly to myself – “there but for grace” – because I will never forget those years of scrambling to get to higher ground with the water always filling in just below me. It is an exhausting existence. In the traumatic imaginings that accompany the journey one is always looking over their shoulder in order to stay a step ahead of the water, to be sure, but even when the water ceases its flow you don’t stop going to that place; turning suddenly only to find that all is still well, until the next time the story resurfaces in the mind. It was a good many years before I stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even as life improved; as I worked my way into more sustainable employment; developed healthy relationships, my mind was given to conjuring up scenarios where it would again all fall apart; that I’d make another bad choice that would set the cycle in motion again.
This is a story not unlike that of the woman who came knocking on the door here at First Parish. Thirty years apart in time, we share what should have, by now, changed. There are other circumstances of life that have turned the tables on these people who knock – maybe it was domestic violence or divorce; maybe downsizing has led to unemployment and the lack of ability to make the rent, buy food, pay for heat; maybe the combination of mental illness and insufficient services has left a person on the streets. It doesn’t take much to fall into such a downward spiral. One factor shifts and you find yourself teetering on the brink. The point is it could be any one of us, in fact, is one of us, a piece of humanity, a part of the whole. There but for grace.
In one of Jesus’ parables he talks about passage into the kingdom; about those who will make the cut being the people who fed the hungry, provided water for the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, visited the imprisoned. The people are confused because he at first intimates that they have done this to the king himself and they have no recollection of offering such help. Jesus sets them straight, saying that when they have served the needy they have, in actuality, served the king.
This is a story about beloved community; about how to get there! And the way is pretty clear! In putting aside our preconceived notions about who exactly are “the needy,” and opening our hearts to their stories we take another step in the direction of beloved community. When Mark and Nancy sit and listen on behalf of this community of faith; responding with hope for a way out; with tangible help in the moment, they offer a glimpse of beloved community to people whose marginalization will likely haunt them for some time.
This is a story about embodied grace, for grace is an empty notion apart from those of us who are willing to carry it in our hearts, be mindful of its presence, and share it in our relationships. That impulse to give of ourselves, freely; to show favor and offer love, is a sacred thing. To be that kind of blessing is to move with such an inclination of the spirit. The imaginings that stir in the minds of people whose hopes have been shattered call out to us for reframing. As people of faith we are called to become “poets of the imagination.” Our task is to reimagine life with those who come knocking on the doors of First Parish or the doors of our hearts as we wander through this maze of living. Stories need to be spoken into the light of day instead of spinning out of control in the deep recesses of the mind. People’s truths must be heard and validated before they will ever be changed. It is hard to receive another’s pain – I mean really receive it; to be that safe space into which they pour their predicaments, but as we are fully present in witness to their testimony we offer the start of a new vision of self. Together we begin to weave a fresh story that creates a new pathway in the brain; putting an end to the feedback loop that plagues; making a way for agency and hope, for possibility and empowerment.
This is the grace that brought me healing and hope; the kind of grace that reimagined life with me. It came in the form of ordinary people who opened their hearts and let me pour in my pain; who were willing to hold the pain while at the same time crafting with me a new work based in self-truths I had allowed to become buried. They were co-workers and friends in intentional communities working for change. They were educators and neighbors and members of faith communities. They were folks just like you. The embodiment of grace in the face of hopelessness and need. My colleague, Angela Herrera, whose words you will find scattered throughout this service, invites in her “Invocation” the broken hearted and the angry to come with joy and passion, love and courage; to bring the need for healing and the power to heal, both. She calls us to this work of grace saying that we have all we need to accomplish it right here in this room. And we do! We are real people with real hearts ready to walk with others whose condition lacks the solidity we are graced to have. Her story, too, is one of grit and determination held in the embodied grace of a poor, struggling mother who taught her to “love outrageous dreams,” of a faith community that encouraged her to pursue those dreams, the embodied grace of professors who believed in possibility. For, she says, “it is never too late to discover that you are whole and holy and in good company in this world, however particular your private experience.”
This is the story of unimaginable gratitude for the willingness of average people to embody grace; to co-create a story that is freed from the fear of what might be; a story that knows of a wholeness and holiness which dwells within no matter the outward circumstance. It is grace that opens the door, welcomes in the stranger; holds the story. It is grace that plants the seed of new imaginings for life; of dreams to be lived into; that makes a way for the now to be less raw and the future to be bold and self-determining.
I tell my story today because I see the hand of Helen Robinson Wright reaching out across the great divide to the people in this town, holding tight as they take that leap of faith. I see her imagining a brighter day alongside those who have fallen upon harder times; believing with them a new story line that returns control over one’s affairs and makes a way for vision and purpose. When this church sold the home she left and placed the proceeds in an endowment fund, deciding to continue offering help to the marginalized in Watertown, it joined with her in acts of embodied grace that imagine beloved community into being.
And now we are that church; each of us sitting here today, all of our members and friends, the trustees who manage the fund, the committee who advises and approves assistance, and the gentle touch of those who answer the door, time and again. Tirelessly and without judgment they embark on a journey with people who moments before were strangers, embodying Helen’s vision of grace, stilling the rising water.
So may it be.
Closing Words – “Lucky Streak” by Angela Herrera from Reaching for the Sun
Who cast a spell over my world?
Who opened the doors,
stirred the crowd of possibilities,
put gold dust in my dreams,
causing my life to turn?
O Fate, O Love, O Spirit, O God:
is it true
that all good things must end?
Or have you set me on a path of meaning
And this grace
that brought me to the mountaintop
is also assigned to carry me through dark forests of loss,
the ones that await us all,
that disturb our peaceful sleep.
The same grace that guides the seasons:
cracking the ice,
pushing up saplings,
scattering the earth with their first dramatic leaves.