Such is Life

A New Unity Sunday Gathering

 

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person.”
These words from Albert Schweitzer must be a guide to us
Let us know, expect, and accept that there will be dark times in our own lives
Let us have deep assurance that we can offer the spark that reignite’s another’s flame
Let this be ever a community of people ready to seek and offer light


Readings

 

Waking, by David Whyte

Get up from your bed,
go out from your house,
follow the path you know so well,
so well that you now see nothing and hear nothing
unless something can cry loudly to you,
and for you it seems
even then
no cry is louder than yours
and in your own darkness
cries have gone unheard as long as you can remember.
These are hard paths we tread
but they are green and lined with leaf mould
and we must love their contours
as we love the body branching
with its veins and tunnels of dark earth.
I know that sometimes your body is hard like a stone
on a path that storms break over,
embedded deeply into that something that you think is you,
and you will not move while the voice all around
tears the air and fills the sky with jagged light.
But sometimes unawares
those sounds seem to descend
as if kneeling down into you
and you listen strangely caught
as the terrible voice moving closer halts,
and in the silence
now arriving
whispers
Get up, I depend on you utterly.
everything you need you had
the moment before you were born.

 

When Someone Deeply Listens to You, by John Fox


When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you've had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.
When someone deeply listens to you,
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind's eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!
When someone deeply listens to you,
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.


Message, by Andy Pakula

 

Spring has come. It’s not just that the vernal equinox has passed and the winter has officially given way to the new season… we can see it all around us.

The trees are suddenly covered in tender young green leaves. The late winter flowers - the harbingers of things to come - once looked out of place - bright explosions of colour against a dead background of brown. No longer - the world is very clearly and rapidly coming back to life.

This season - when the world of nature comes back to life - is an appropriate time to talk about how we too - at many times in our lives seem to be all but dead and then - amazingly - mysteriously - wondrously - find ourselves again coming back to life - stretching upward in the bright sunshine of relationship and beauty and love.

This will be our focus for the next three months - the ways in which we find recovery, healing, and new life.

Today, we begin by considering acknowledgement and acceptance.

Consider this story.

During Buddha’s time, there lived a woman named Kisa Gotami. She married young and gave birth to a son. One day, the baby fell sick and died soon after. Kisa Gotami loved her son greatly and refused to believe that her son was dead. She carried the body of her son around her village, asking if there was anyone who can bring her son back to life.
The villagers all saw that the son was already dead and there was nothing that could be done. They advised her to accept his death and make arrangements for the funeral.

In great grief, she fell upon her knees and clutched her son’s body close to her body. She kept uttering for her son to wake up.

A village elder took pity on her and suggested to her to consult the Buddha.

“Kisa Gotami. We cannot help you. But you should go to the Buddha. Maybe he can bring your son back to life!”

Kisa Gotami was extremely excited upon hearing the elder’s words. She immediately went to the Buddha’s residence and pleaded for him to bring her son back to life.

“Kisa Gotami, I have a way to bring your son back to life.”

“My Lord, I will do anything to bring my son back”

“If that is the case, then I need you to find me something. Bring me a mustard seed but it must be taken from a house where no one residing in the house has ever lost a family member. Bring this seed back to me and your son will come back to life.”

Having great faith in the Buddha’s promise, Kisa Gotami went from house to house, trying to find the mustard seed.

At the first house, a young woman offered to give her some mustard seeds. But when Kisa Gotami asked if she had ever lost a family member to death, the young women said her grandmother died a few months ago.

Kisa Gotami thanked the young woman and explained why the mustard seeds did not fulfill the Buddha’s requirements.

She moved on to the 2nd house. A husband died a few years. The 3rd house lost an uncle and the 4th house lost an aunt. She kept moving from house to house but the answer was all the same – every house had lost a family member to death.

Kisa Gotami finally came to realise that there is no one in the world who had never lost a family member to death. She now understood that death is inevitable and a natural part of life.
Putting aside her grief, she buried her son in the forest. Shen then returned to the Buddha and became his follower.

I’ve always been fascinated and touched by this story. The depth of Kisa Gotami’s grief is moving - almost unbearable. It hits me in a visceral way and any of us who have children that are very close to us can probably not help feeling the pain of this young mother so very distraught that she can’t even accept that her beloved child is dead.

The Buddha’s response though might seem facile - not to mention a bit dishonest. He sends Kisa Gotami on a fool’s errand, but the fruitless task educates her about the universality and of death and loss. And that changed everything. She becomes a follower of the Buddha and - according to Buddhist writings - eventually became enlightened.

But we all know that everyone dies. We all know that suffering is universal. We all see people cry, we see the injured and the maimed, we see the suffering.

If we all know that suffering is universal, why has this become one of the best known stories of the Buddhist canon?

Why does it feel powerful?

Why is this Buddhist answer significant? Remember that it is quite different than an answer that Kisa Gotami might have got in one of the Abrahamic faiths. Christianity and Islam might point to an afterlife or to the notion that God had a purpose for the child’s death. Some in Christianity might point to the value of suffering which makes us more like Jesus.

The Buddha’s answer can not be just about the fact of suffering - that is obvious to us all.
It is about something greater and hard to describe, which is why it defies easy explanation.

Some twenty years ago, I was newly attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation with my wife and then toddler son outside Boston Massachusetts. Although still a fairly reluctant participant - one who didn’t want to get involved with anything that might make me feel uncomfortable - I found myself volunteered to help chaperone a winter-time teen weekend at a rustic retreat centre somewhere far from the city. I resisted, but as it was my wife volunteering me and as she is extremely persuasive, I eventually said yes.

I did not want to be there. First of all - rustic. I don’t do rustic. I don’t like cold, stiff mattresses, dirt, dirty communal kitchens, or shared toilets. All of those turned out to be part of the experience.

But worse than that, I had a strong aversion to teens. It was because my own teen experiences felt so negative. Teens, as I recalled them, are cocky and inconsiderate. They pick on anyone who isn’t cool, funny, strong, and sporty. Teens have no compassion. My buried wounded teen self sensed danger. I agreed with strong misgivings.

The weekend changed all of that for me and more.

These young people may have behaved in public settings like the ones I remembered from my youth, but something was very different. They had formed a community, and in that community they felt safe. Safety meant that they were able to let down their guard and put aside the pretenses of strength and coolness and cockiness.

So they let their true selves show.

And what I learned is that suffering is universal. And it is not just the obvious kind of suffering where people are basically happy and together and then something bad happens so they cry for a bit and go back to being perfect again. This may be how we picture suffering, but it is only one aspect - and one that misleads us.

The true and universal suffering is what we sense we must hide. It is that each of us feels in some way inadequate. I learned that most of these beautiful teens thought they were not good looking. Most of these clever young people thought they were not smart enough. They thought they were not funny enough, not sporty enough, and on and on.

They thought there was something wrong with them and ability to share that with one another and to witness to each other’s pain was an almost miraculous balm to their suffering.

It’s not that the pain wasn’t there. It was something more important. They knew that they were not alone. They knew compassion - which literally means to suffer with. And this knowledge - the lack of a need for pretense in such a community - made room for joy. They could play and laugh and embrace with abandon because they no longer felt they needed to hide.

As we human beings grow into adulthood, we learn that it is not OK to be show weakness. I don’t know if this is because of the culture we live in or something more ancient. In many species, individual animals when ill or injured will hide their maladies or even avoid other members of their social grouping. They know, perhaps, the brutal truth that the weak are left outside the tribe to fend for themselves or even set upon by the stronger. But if everyone hides their weakness, then we each come to think that we are the only one suffering - the only one who is flawed in a world of generally perfect and perfectly-happy individuals.

Knowing we are not alone in our suffering can come as a revelation. It can come as a surprising light of healing and comfort.

This is why listening can be so healing. The speaker learns there is a possibility of being safe in sharing their weakness, their imperfection, and their suffering. They speak and they are heard and not rejected from the tribe and this makes it possible to accept and to know they are not alone.

And the listener too is healed as they learn that their own private terrors are not at all theirs alone.

At the beginning of each Sunday gathering I say that you are welcome here. And I insist that whoever you are, you are not alone. We all need to hear this message. We all need to know this. This knowing brings relief and it changes everything. It does so because we, together, are the answer to our woes. Together - open and unguarded - we can begin to hold and heal one another.

And this makes room for real joy and real wonder and real connection and real compassion and real love. Not just the kind that we wear like a mask but the real, deeply-felt, no-holds-barred, ecstasy of living.

Before I close, I’d like to ask you some of the questions that the youth asked one another that weekend so long ago.

Please raise your hand if you have not felt you were not smart enough.

If you have not felt you were not physically attractive enough.

If you have not felt you were not funny enough.

If you have not felt lonely.

If you have not felt unlovable.

If you have not felt like you did not belong.

Whoever you are, you are welcome here.

Whoever you are, you are not alone.

 

Whatever you are going through
However alone you feel
There are others who have feel the same and suffer as you do
Despite all appearances, the reality of suffering is universal
The pain we each feel is felt by all
This shared reality can open the door to the greatest joy
Can create the possibility of boundless love
Whoever you are, you are welcome here.
Whoever you are, you are not alone.