“This Is Now” by Margaret Weis
May 19, 2013 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – River Call by Manish Mishra
Between rocking the boat and sitting down;
Between stirring things up and peaceable going along,
We find ourselves here, in community.
Each called from many different journeys,
Many different life paths,
Onto this river road.
Some are here because the rocking of the boat has been too much.
Too much tumult, too much uncertainty, too much pain.
Some are here with questions about where the boat is going;
How best to steer it,
Where the journey ends.
Others are here as lovers of the journey, lovers of life itself.
Here in front
Each a passenger;
Each a captain;
Doing the best we can.
“Rest here, in your both, with me,” the river calls.
“Listen to how I flow, the sound of life coursing all around you.”
Let the current hold you,
Let the current guide you,
The river that gently flows through your soul,
“Come, let us worship.”
Reading – “Aristotle” by Billy Collins
This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find the creation of light,
A fish wriggling onto land,
The first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
A woman ironing on a bare stage as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
Tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark,
The profile of an animal is being smeared on the wall of a cave,
And you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
A pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her,
Your first night without her.
This is the first part
Where the wheels begin to turn,
Where the elevator begins its ascent,
Before the doors lurch apart.
This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
Teeming with people at cross-purposes – a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack here
And pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
Where the action suddenly reverses
Or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
To why Miriam does not want Edward’s child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
A song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation. This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle –
The guitars of Spain,
piles of ripe avocados,
Arguments heard through a wall –
Too much to name, too much to think about.
And this is the end,
The car running out of road,
The river losing its name in an ocean,
The long nose of the photographed horse
Touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon,
The last elephant in the parade,
The empty wheelchair,
And pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
The narrator leads the characters to their cells.
And the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
And St. Clement
With an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
What we have all been waiting for,
What everything comes down to,
The destination we cannot help imagining,
A streak of light in the sky,
A hat on a peg,
And outside the cabin, falling leaves.
Sermon – This Is Now
Today is a new beginning; a fresh start.
We all have new beginnings in our lives:
The first day at a new job; The first day since leaving a particularly bad job. The first date with someone we like; The first day of freedom from that toxic relationship.
The beginning is so filled with emotion – fear, anxiety, excitement at what is to come. Will I be good at this new job? Will middle school math be harder than fifth grade math? Does this new church mesh with my beliefs? Did I make the right decision about which college to attend? Will I be a good parent? Do I really want to marry this person?!
So many questions and wonderings about what will happen. And soon those questions and wonderings stop being about the future, and quickly become the present. Thinking about what my life will be like a year from now is an important thing to ponder. But a year is a long time and must be lived one day at a time. And still, if we don’t take the time to be present in the moment, we might wake up one day having floated through that time, and unhappy as a result. If we are always looking to the future, we miss the present that is right in front of us.
This is where mindfulness can ground us in the moment. In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh writes about the common misunderstandings about Buddha. He writes that it is true that the Buddha taught the truth of suffering, but he also taught the truth of “dwelling happily in things as they are.” So yes, life is suffering and that is what unites us, but he also calls us to acknowledge our happiness. Thich Nhat Hanh also writes about our happiness when there is the absence of suffering, and our need to embrace it. He uses the illustration of a toothache, and the suffering we feel when our tooth is in pain. He notes the feeling of relief we feel when the suffering ends, and how quickly we forget how that suffering felt.
I often think about the suffering involved in beginnings. Often enough there are periods of adjustment as we work out all the kinks of a new experience. Starting something new is sure to bring feelings of frustration and difficulty. But it is also sure to bring moments of joy and satisfaction as we grow from those mistakes we make. The beginning can be scary, but by remaining mindful of the present, it can bring about great growth.
According to Buddhist psychology, we are always giving our attention to something. If we practice Right Mindfulness, we allow ourselves to dwell solely on the present moment. This means that regardless of the twists and turns to come, we are prepared because we are grounded in the present.
I never had much of an imagination to think of new worlds all on my own, but I often found myself in the storylines of Disney movies. Growing up I envisioned my life through the eyes of singing crabs and talking trees, and little mice that knew how to sew. When Pocahontas came onto the scene, perhaps for the first time, I found some language for my beliefs. Yes, I know this sounds strange, but it’s true. Remember that as a born and raised UU I was taught to see the holy in many places. And yes, sometimes that meant in cartoon movies about the colonization of the Americas.
There is a scene in the film that replays in my mind often enough, and speaks to the ebbs and flows of life – and the constancy of change. In the song, Just Around the Riverbend, Pocahontas sings, “the funny thing about rivers is you can’t step in the same river twice. The water’s always changing, always flowing.”
I had never really thought about that. Indeed, we are always changing; always flowing. There is this sense of connection between streams and rivers and oceans that represents our experiences of this life. The beginning is a fleeting moment that morphs and flows quickly into something similar but altogether different, then returns now and again as a familiar stream.
And by standing in the stream, we often have to fight against the current. It is a different experience to stand in the stream than it is to get in a boat or swim with the current.
Two Septembers ago Susan and I completed a bike ride called the Harbor to the Bay. The route goes from Copley Square to Provincetown – a total of 127 miles – to raise money for AIDS research. We had done the ride once before together, but were unable to finish because we were too chatty at the rest stops and lost too much daylight. We had to stop about twenty miles from the finish line and be driven to the end.
So this particular year we were prepared to finish the whole thing! We asked others who had done the ride before to tell us about the last few miles of the ride, and they kept talking about this hill. They didn’t say too much in detail, but when they would talk about the hill their eyes would get VERY BIG, and then they would sigh deeply, indicating that the incline was tough, especially at that late in the game.
So after the last rest stop, as Susan and I rode into unknown territory, each hill we got to we would say, “do you think this is it?”. Nah, not steep enough!
“Maybe this is the hill … this one’s pretty big” I would say. Nope, not steep enough!We were getting pretty tired and worn out and to be honest, I started thinking that the other riders were just messing with us … maybe there wasn’t even a hill.
Or maybe they weren’t as amazing as us and we had blown right up their terrifying hill without a second glance.
And then – I saw it, just as we were turning a corner. The tree line went up at an incline so steep I just started laughing. “I think I found the hill,” I said.
So we took a deep breath and started pedaling … I’m pretty sure we defied gravity that day. It was amazing that my bike could actually stay upright going that slowly up this thing! Midway up it I thought about stopping and walking the rest of the way … but that was it. That was the hardest part of the ride, and we hadn’t stopped yet … we weren’t about to give up now! The end was in sight.
I wish I could tell you that after that hill it was all smooth sailing. It wasn’t. It was still a hard and challenging finish, but we knew the worst was over. We knew when the end point would be.
It’s difficult though when we don’t know that the worst is over. It’s difficult when we are in the thick of it, tired and worn out, and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. It just keeps going and going and going.
It’s too much to name; too much to think about. We spend a lot of our time in the middle, maybe even most of it. We maneuver through this labyrinth of decisions and wondering, unsure of what life will bring us. And often enough, things change in an instant and we haven’t had time to think about what being in the middle will be like. Our loved one dies suddenly, or a tornado takes our home, and we find ourselves in uncharted territory, poorly prepared for the journey. Or perhaps we’ve thought about what it would be like, but the reality is outside our realm of thinking.
Last Sunday, on Mother’s Day, one of my closest and dearest friends gave birth to her first daughter. In that instant her life was changed. She is now, and will forever be, someone’s mother. But in all reality that didn’t happen in one instant. She had been pregnant for over 40 weeks. She and her husband have been planning and saving, and painting (well, actually – Susan and I did the painting), and decorating, and name-debating for months! They had been in the middle of it all along.
And even still, they were on the cusp of a new beginning – a new reality of diapers and stuffed animals, and bedtime stories. They are journeying into the thick of it. They’ve made it over the top of that very steep and difficult hill, but as we all know too well, many others lie ahead. But it’s not a new life, it’s just another leg of the journey of their lives. It’s a new page, but not a different book.
The river losing its name in an ocean. The Charles to Boston Harbor to the Atlantic. You can’t step in the same river twice. Life is always changing and flowing. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant in life.”
It seems like these are the things we are told when things are going particularly badly. Oftentimes when people die or tragedy strikes, we are reminded by well-meaning friends that change is a good thing and that the end is really the beginning.
Well that may be so, but change hurts, and so do endings. It’s hard to say goodbye to the people we love and care about, and its especially difficult if we don’t have the chance to. It is hard to end a 50-year career that we have loved because we are no longer able to do the work. It is hard to decide that there has been enough suffering, and it is hard to say goodbye.
And yes, we know that every new beginning comes from an ending. We know that life will go on and we will laugh again and smile again and keep going. And it is in those moments of ending that we have to give thanks for what has happened.
Our society is so focused on what is coming next, that we rarely pause long enough to reflect on the past and the present. We are quick to jump to the next things on our to-do list or the next errand to run. I wonder what we lose because of this automatic tumble into the future.
We don’t do endings well. I often think about this when I learn of people who have died young. Oftentimes people will say that the person wouldn’t want us to be so sad. They wouldn’t want us to cry about their death. And every time, I turn to Sue and I say, “Just for the record … I want people to cry when I’m gone. I want them to be sad that I died.” It might sound harsh but it is true. Because in my heart I know that if I’ve lived my life the way I strive to, it will matter when I’m gone.
I’m reminded of a poem by Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee Nation:
“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.”
Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none.
When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Time to live their lives over again in a different way.
There is a saying that is very common right now, especially amongst teenagers like my niece. Like most things these days, it comes complete with rubberized bracelets in neon colors and sparkly t-shirts adorned with four letters: Y.O.L.O.
When I saw this I texted my niece, “what does Y.O.L.O. stand for?” This happens often enough … apparently I’m not as cool as I thought I was! She wrote back, You Only Live Once.
Now, as a person preparing for ministry, I tried to restrain my thoughts on what this meant for my niece and others theologically. What does she believe about the end of life, or endings in general? Does she reject the idea of reincarnation? Is this a reflection of her Humanist point of view? No, Margaret – it’s a t-shirt!
But I do think it’s more than that. I think it’s an embodiment of this Tecumseh poem, and it’s a cousin to the idea of Buddhist Right Mindfulness. It’s a bold statement that the present moment is worthy of our attention. This moment, whether beginning, or middle, or end, matters.
If this moment is a beginning for you, filled with eagerness and fear, I wish you blessings for your journey. If you are in the thick of it, stuck on a ledge halfway up the mountain, or coming down the other side, I wish you blessings for your journey. And if you are at the end, making your way downstream to the ocean, I wish you blessings for your journey, with knowledge that a new leg of the journey awaits.
May we journey together, now and always. Amen. Blessed be.