What Breaks your Heart?

I first heard that story of the perfect heart told a couple of summers ago. It was shared by our UUA President, The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, as part of a worship service at a Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.

Later in that service, during her sermon Rev. Susan reflected on her first year as President. She spoke of the gratitude she felt for having had the opportunity to serve. She also acknowledged the heartbreak and challenge and urgency she felt coming into that role at the particular moment in history when she did, when both the denomination and the nation were in crisis. And she spoke specifically of her experience early in her term of marching in Charlottesville, her heart broken by the racism and white nationalist violence that she witnessed there.

“We are living in times of heartbreak, violence, struggle and pain,” she said. And she said that throughout the course of her first year in office, two things were made clear to her:

1. First, this is no time for a casual commitment to our faith, our community, and our values
2. And second, that this is no time to think that we are in this alone

She said,

“In this time, we need communities that remind us of our humanity in this very inhumane time. We need communities that teach us how [to love with fullness, with boldness, and with courage…and] unconditionally in the midst of propaganda and politics that tell our hearts to be afraid. We need communities where we can bring our heartbreak and the fullness of our pain and be reminded that we are not alone.”

As part of that same service that morning, they showed a video compilation of UU clergy and lay people sharing briefly – in a sentence or two – what breaks their hearts. Some shared about heartbreaking things that are happening in our world, others about how their hearts have been broken by our denomination and its struggle to become more inclusive of all voices, to adapt to the times, and to remain a relevant and powerful force in the world.

This morning, I am going to invite you to reflect on what breaks your heart…because I know, from some of my conversations with you, that your hearts are breaking…and because I believe, like Rev. Susan, that this community ought to be a place where we can bring our heartbreak and remember that we are not alone.

When I started reflecting on what breaks my own heart, I came up with a long list.

The Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, has said, “If the Earth were your body, you would be able to feel the many areas where it is suffering.”

To which Sarah Rudell Beach responds, “Some days, the world breaks our heart. We turn on the news and we learn of another act of violence and anger and hate and rage. Our stomach sinks. Our heart aches. Our throat clenches. Our bodies DO feel the suffering of the world.”

As I started to make my list, I realized that if I allowed myself to feel…to really feel…each time my heart was broken, I would be a tearful sodden mess. So I do what most of us do…I put up walls and barriers…I seek out distraction…I get angry, because for some reason it feels better to be angry sometimes than to be sad. And I do all those things so that I can get through each day. I harden my heart a little.

But then I am reminded that while the Bible talks a lot about hardened hearts, they are never a good thing. And I’m reminded that the Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in his writings about spiritual warriors, said that true warriorship is about “renouncing our hard-heartedness and allowing ourselves to be tender, sad and fully present.” That, he said, is the root of true fearlessness, true bravery, and true compassion.

We don’t have to try to be brave and compassionate alone. This is something we can do together, in community. As my UU colleague, the Rev. Natalie Fenimore said, as part of that same worship service a couple of summers ago, we must pull together the pieces of our broken hearts and expand our ability to love.”

This morning, you were given an index card. At this time, I invite you to use one side of it to write a sentence or two about what breaks your heart. Take a few moments to do that. And then, if you feel so moved, I’ll invite you to share what you’ve written…

What Gives you Hope?

I want to thank you for that sharing, because a congregation that can acknowledge and share heartbreak with one another is a congregation made stronger by its members’ willingness to risk, to be vulnerable, and to open its collective, tender heart up to being touched by grief.

Now we shift our focus to reflect on what gives us hope.

We’ve been thinking about hope all throughout this month of December. I have shared some of my own thoughts on the matter. But this morning, I’d love to hear from you and to offer you the opportunity to hear from one another. What gives you hope?

The dictionary defines hope as…

“The feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best.”

It says, to hope is “to look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence” or “to believe, desire, or trust.”

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah continues on through sunset tomorrow evening. And I wonder, when I think about the Hanukkah story in particular, about those definitions of hope. Perhaps the one who lit the flame knowing there was not enough oil really did believe that events would turn out for the best. Perhaps. But it’s hard to imagine they had reasonable confidence that one day’s worth of oil would burn for 8 days. Were they being optimistic? Were they hoping for a miracle? Or, in that moment of near-defeat, in that moment of darkness, were they simply doing what they could, hoping against hope?

Dr. Cornell West, progressive African American theologian, has described himself as a “prisoner of hope,” but not as an optimist. He says it’s impossible for him to be an optimist as a black man in America. But he quotes Jeffrey Stout who says, “Hope is not a mood, it’s a virtue.”

“We have a right to be in as dark a mood as we want [says Cornell West], because things are indeed bleak.” But… “No matter how dark your mood is, you still have a responsibility to aspire to the virtuous. Hope is the refusal to succumb to despair and nihilism.”

In other words, hope is kindling an eternal flame, because it is the virtuous thing to do, even though there’s only enough oil to last for one day.

As David Henderson, a Professor of Educational Leadership, has said,

Optimism depends on the world’s dark realities relenting – they will not. Optimism requires externals to work themselves out – they will not. Hope, on the other hand, doesn’t ignore external realities; it simply knows the human heart’s capacity to withstand those realities, and it trusts in the inexhaustible power of our heart to choose love over fear.

Or as author and lover of literature Sarah Clarkson has written in her reflections on the lessons from the Lord of the Rings series,

In the vision of Sam Gangee, exhausted and alone in the deserts of Mordor, I learned that hope isn’t found in the absence of suffering but in glimpses of ‘light and high beauty’ that help us to believe that ‘the darkness is a small and passing thing.’

Who or what gives you hope? Who or what reminds you of the “light and high beauty” of life…of the inexhaustible power of the human heart to choose love over fear…to act even when it’s unreasonable to act…

This morning, I invite you once again to take a few moments to reflect. And then to use the other side of your index card to write a sentence or two about who or what gives you hope. And then, if you feel so moved, I’ll once again invite you to share what you’ve written…

Reverend Wendy Bell
Interim Minister | + posts

Wendy Bell was appointed Interim Minister of First Parish of Watertown in August of 2019, and will serve a two year term while we are in search for a new settled minister.