Living with joy and sorrow

What do you encounter as you walk around London. If you are mindful of where you are going, you will see many things. One of you told me about a beautiful piece of fabric found for just 50p and a piece of unloved board picked up for nothing. These two things together made something lovely.

 

Another one of you told me about finding both money and dead birds along the roads as she walks. What do you notice? What do you try not to see? What do you miss? What could be

useful?

 

Last week, we talked about what it is that propels our lives forward - that makes each day worth getting up. We talked about purpose and meaning in our lives. Today, we will return again to the reality that our lives are not as sweet as any of the fairy tales might promise or our fondest hopes might envision. We will talk today about how we can live - and flourish - in a world that brings an abundance of both joys and sorrows to every single person.

 

Life is not consistent with us. We see this reality every Sunday when we share our joys and sorrows. We each know it from our own lives. One day brings sunshine, the next brings rain. One day brings a gentle breeze, the next day the sky flashes with the jagged streaks of lightening and our ears echo with thunder.

 

One approach to living with joy and sorrow makes me think of the survivalists - a breed most often found in the western parts of the USA. For the survivalists, the proper response to the dangers of life is defence. It is to amass weapons and food supplies and, most of all, to build bunkers. Hidden away in a steel-reinforced concrete fortress with enough supplies for a year and enough guns to fight the invasion by a small nation is certainly one way to react to the reality that the world is not always a friendly and joyous place.

 

That approach has some serious drawbacks. You have to be willing to spend a lot of time in a claustrophobic, dark, underground space without fresh air. Yes, you would be safer in the event of a tornado, a surprise nuclear attack, a plague, or a zombie apocalypse... But oh... what you'd miss. Hunkered down in your safe underground shelter, you'd never see the beauty of a butterfly floating in the breeze. You'd miss the caress of a gentle summer sun-shower. You'd be deprived of the chance to meet a lovely stranger who might bring extraordinary joy into your life. 

 

Oh, of course you might intend to pop out of the hole in the ground for the good things and then hide away again when it got tough. Wonders and miracles are not quite so predictable though. We use the expression "a sheltered life." When we say someone has had a sheltered life, we mean that they have been protected from the hard realities of a normal existence. But there is also another implication to this expression. A person with such a background seems incomplete - only partially formed. Maybe he is like the cake that has never been through the strengthening heat of the baking oven. He is soft, runny, mushy, unable to stand on his own.

 

The sheltered life is not enough. It keeps life's greatest joys from us. It leaves us illformed, and incomplete. There is another way to live.

 

Consider these words spoken more than 800 years ago the mystic and poet we know simply as Rumi:

 

This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. 

A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they're a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still treat each guest honourably.

He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

Welcome every arrival. Invite them in. 

 

Rumi is lucky he's not around today. I remember all too well the depressions and meanness and tragedies and sorrow. I certainly don't want to invite any of those to come back and visit. I think I'd grab poor unsuspecting Rumi by the lapels and shout in his face "invite them in? welcome them? What are you? Crazy?"

 

Rumi suggests that everything in our life guides us - leads us - and forms us - that everything - our joys and our sorrows - our victories and our defeats - are part of our path and part of what enables to grow and to become what we are meant to be. Rumi doesn't mention just how hard this is to do.

 

Words from the modern poet - and I would dare to say mystic - Mary Oliver, give us a suggestion of that challenge. Her poem is called "The chance to love everything."

 

All summer I made friends with the creatures nearby — they flowed through the fields and under the tent walls, or padded through the door, grinning through their many teeth, looking for seeds, suet, sugar; muttering and humming, opening the breadbox, happiest when there was milk and music.

But once in the night I heard a sound outside the door, the canvas bulged slightly — something was pressing inward at eye level.

 

I watched, trembling, sure I had heard the click of claws, the smack of lips outside my gauzy house — I imagined the red eyes, the broad tongue, the enormous lap.

Would it be friendly too?

Fear defeated me. And yet, not in faith and not in madness but with the courage I thought my dream deserved,

I stepped outside. It was gone.

Then I whirled at the sound of some shambling tonnage.

Did I see a black haunch slipping back through the trees?

Did I see the moonlight shining on it?

Did I actually reach out my arms toward it, toward paradise falling, like the fading of

the dearest, wildest hope — the dark heart of the story that is all the reason for its telling?

The challenge to welcoming everything - the challenge of inviting it all in comes with the terror of claws and hungry teeth. It comes with the threat of destruction and terror and pain.

I cannot - I will not invite it in.

Mary Oliver, however, did not invite the terrifying presence that visited her late at night in the dark woods.

She, in her delicate gauzy home - her tent in the woods - opened herself to whatever comes.

 

The question is not whether we want pain and terror. We don't. The question - the challenge - the great work of being alive is to use everything we encounter as material for the selves we are building. 

It may be the unwanted piece of board - the dirty piece of fabric in which we see possibility - the death that reminds us of the preciousness of each moment. It is all part of what we use to make a life.

The pain we encounter - like the heat of an oven - forms and firms us. Our suffering teaches us a compassion that can connect us with all others. Our disappointments and failures bring essential depth to an otherwise shallow spirit.

What we are left with is the question of what we will do with that useful suffering when it comes - as it inevitably does. Will we look away, pop back underground to hide, or will we reach out, put our arms out to love what comes, to welcome it, to use it to build with?

Most importantly, the work of moulding suffering into strength is work not best done alone. It is the work done with someone to lend us their strength as we scream how we don't want this message - work done with someone holding us as we sobbingly confront and accept our pain.

It is work best done in the safety of love and in the hold of beloved community.

May your life be strengthened and developed by all you encounter.

May this be a place that gives you the strength you need for the great work of becoming.