Four people with taper candles light chalice framed by two rings

“Good Mourning” – March 19, 2023

Mar 20, 2023

 

Reading:

“Otherwise,” by Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

SERMON:

“It might have been otherwise…”

This is a poem written by the stunning Jane Kenyon, right after she received a leukemia diagnosis. This illness took her life, and this poem was published a short while later in a collection called “Otherwise: New and Selected Poems.” Most of them have to do with her facing the end.

The first time I heard it I was on Star Island–a UU retreat and conference center off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire–lying on the rocks just outside the chapel at morning service. This is always where I attend worship, on the rocks. And the minister of the week, Rev. Mara Dowdall, at the time she served in Burlington, VT, read Kenyon’s words and then just let them steep like tea. A stretch of silence was offered to us and all she said at the top of it was, “let us try for presence now.” For this is a poem about presence. With the mundane–those seemingly insignificant moments we pass by and live out all the time. “Let us try for presence now,” she said. And I’ll speak for myself, in that silence that day on the rocks was such a surprising comfort. The feel of the rocks under my body like I’d never felt them before, the sound of the gulls like I’d never heard them before, my young daughter–Poppy was about six at the time and cuddled up next to me–everything took on a bright hue in those few minutes of contemplating ‘it could be otherwise’/’one day it will be otherwise.’ But not dismal. That was the surprise. It was beautiful. I felt lucky in that brief, fleeting moment to know it as precious…even if only for a blip of a moment, I got to know it as precious. Lucky me.

This is the gift of presence by the way–why so many practitioners of meditation, yoga, and prayer dedicate themselves to these modalities. For the precious blip.

We humans, most of us, don’t practice this all that much, do we? Or we do, and then we forget. It doesn’t make us bad; it makes us human.

This Otherwise–it could be otherwise/it will be otherwise–this is what Buddhists call impermanence. Impermanence; the only certain Truth about this thing called being human that we can 100% rely on: that we are always in transition. Nothing ever stays the same. All things go. During every moment of our lives, something is ending and something else is beginning. Right now winter is ending and spring is beginning–the equinox is in the air. It’s happening all the time–something ending, and something else beginning.

Buddhist teachings, called the Dharma, show us that our work in life is to wake up and get present to the fleeting, transitory nature of everything, so that you can experience the freshness of every moment. That’s the promise. But to do this, be truly awake to the freshness of every moment and every encounter, you must know about its impermanence. There’s the kicker.

To really wrap our minds around the wholeness of this, we need to understand how we humans seem to naturally orient ourselves–it’s like a default button–which is to permanence. We like things the way we like them. “Stay put!” we say. Many of us go to great lengths to wrest consistency and predictability from our lives. And we suffer as a result. Because nothing wants to stay. And this fills us with disappointment, frustration, anxiety, resentment, grief. Oh how we suffer.

Suffering, to Buddhists, comes from, in part, wanting nothing to change. The wonderful Buddhist priest Pema Chodren says it this way: “despite our lifetime of experience with change, something within us never stops insisting on stability…We live in a wondrous flow of birth and death, birth and death….The end of one experience is the beginning of the next experience, which quickly comes to its own end, leading to a new beginning. Its like a river continuously flowing. Usually, we resist this flow by trying to solidify our experience in one way or another. We try to find something, anything, to hold on to. The instruction here is to relax and let go. The training here is to accustom ourselves to existing within this continuous flow–knowing ourselves to be a part of it–Suffering is our struggle against it.”

Said another way, “It’s not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.” (Thich Naht Han)

This does not come easy to me. How about you?

For myself, in my life and in my body, oh how I feel the struggle for permanence! I call this “gripping tightly.” Do you know this feeling? It could be a story or memory, ours or our family’s, that’s very difficult to not grip tightly to; it could be a place, not wanting a place to change–oh, I can get gripped there–a house or the set-up of it; it could be an expectation–how you imagine something going at, say, an upcoming gathering, or a committee meeting, or even out of some justice initiative…this is how this should look or happen; it could be a piece of history that is very difficult to look at differently. Another gripping place: how my body should feel. Strong, rested, free of pain and anxiety, like it’s some kind of machine that if I only program correctly, fuel in some way, will function in the ways I can predict and depend upon. And I suffer. Because I am consistently let down!

And I hope we can laugh at all of this–all of our insistence on keeping things the way they are, or expecting them to be. It makes cat herders of us all and it’s funny. As are most of our insistences on some kind of formula for life, or people, or ideologies, or faiths, as being static and within our finite, well-planned, predicted grasps. We must keep our humor about this my friends, or we risk becoming brittle in spirit and way too serious for this thing called life.

You are wise when you say: life is fragile. It’s unfathomable. It’s unpredictable. Life’s subtitle we can all agree is, absolutely, “It could be otherwise and one day it will be otherwise.” And you are wise to know this as the most vulnerable of truths. Our theme this month is the path of vulnerability, and yes, this is one of the most vulnerable of truths: that one day it will be otherwise. Why?

Let’s get to the why. Why we grip so tightly, why I can grip so tightly. I sense it comes down to the very real fear of loss. Mourning. Grief. Pain.

I would say that underneath all the places I grip tightly against, are these fears. Of losing something. Losing a part of my identity, a comfort, a familiarity. Loss of something I want or think is right–dreams, hopes, the familiar and known and predictable…loss of control. That scares me. These are not easy things to feel. These are the great and ever-present griefs of our lives. What Pema Chodren meant when she said that “we live in a wondrous flow of birth and death, birth and death. The end of one experience is the beginning of the next experience, which quickly comes to its own end, leading to a new beginning. It’s like a river continuously flowing.”

And this is now what I want to turn to, which is the dignity of Good Mourning. This is what spiritual community puts our minds in touch with/wakes us up to: this human experience of holding on and letting go. Being knitted into the fabric of an ecosystem in flux. And attempting to create presence and meaning within it within its flow. Good mourning. This is what this spiritual community-our Unitarian Universalist faith–a living (moving, flowing) tradition is asking of us. And is helping us with.

Good Mourning means we become good hosts to it all. Not unlike the great Sufi poet Rumi’s wise teaching, “this being human is a guest house. Welcome it all in.”

When we open ourselves to it all, and give Good Mourning the dignity it deserves, in the best way we can, our grips are loosened, our shoulders relax, our jaws unclench, our breath and heartbeat slow. And we are planted in the present. And when we are ungripped and here, really here, we are better able to identify the fear, know it as valid, and bless and release it; we are able to cultivate compassion for our grief, and through doing this, offer compassion to our grieving fellows; we are better able to pause and listen to one another, because we have practiced offering pause and a listening ear to ourselves. These are the life-saving, life-changing, world healing benefits of getting intimate with the depths of who we are and all that we fear and mourn. For when we cultivate an ungripped, compassionate presence–if only for a blip of a moment–we then become the light-bearers of it. Transmitting compassionate presence to everyone we meet. It’s contagious.

As is the opposite of all of this. That is contagious too.

I encourage you to hold some of this close as you continue to do the work of welcome that our 8th Principle calls us towards. How do we live and breathe welcome? it asks us. So that we might be spiritually WHOLE, it promises us. As I said earlier, a survey will be in your email boxes this afternoon that asks for about 15 minutes of your time. A blip. As you answer the questions being put forward about all that hangs on these walls or serves as symbols here in your blessed church, notice what’s going on in your body. What’s the fear? Where are you getting gripped? And then: Can you loosen a bit? Can you inch a bit closer to what is really going on? There is good and important mourning in all of this. And in all the perspectives that you hold around this. It’s what makes it magnificent! For the wholeness of human experience is always a magnificent thing.

In closing, I want to offer you the gift that Rev. Mara gave us on the rocks at Star Island all those years ago. I am going to re-read Jane Kenyon’s poem Otherwise and after I am done, we are going to steep in a bit of silence. And during this silence, I hope you will breathe. And hear one another breathe. And rejoice, and rest in this blessed moment together here in our sanctuary–whose loving arms are wrapped around us and this our Good Mourning:

Otherwise, by Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise. 

SILENCE

This precious human life, so fragile, so powerful, bless us all that we reach its full meaning. And that along the way we know its beauty and its ugliness; its great joys and good, good mournings. And that in some way we welcome it all in, be good hosts to it all. Be good hosts to one another. Be good hosts to ourselves. Amen.

Won’t you now rise in body and in spirit and sing of Good Mourning. Morning has Broken.

Reverend Sophia Lyons
Website | + posts

Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.

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