We come together today
With all our many stories
From lives that have brought both possibility and challenge
Promise and pain
And we have come to share with one another the strengths we have gained along the journey
May this light remind us that we are strong and unique
And may it guide us to turn every challenge into a promise for tomorrow
A Vision, by Wendell Berry
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees on a ruined place,
Renewing it, enriching it,
If we will make our seasons welcome here,
Asking not too much of earth or heaven.
Then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live here,
Their houses strongly placed upon the valley sides,
Fields and gardens rich in the windows.
The river will run clear,
as we will never know it,
And over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be green meadows,
Stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down the old forest,
An old forest will stand,
Its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music risen out of the ground.
They will take nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting.
Memory, native to this valley,
will spread over it like a grove,
and memory will grow into legend,
legend into song, song into sacrament.
The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling light.
This is no paradise or dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.
Story: Carrot, Egg, or Coffee Bean?
A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were so hard for her. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed as one problem was solved a new one arose.
Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water. In the first, she placed carrots, in the second she placed eggs and the last she placed ground coffee beans. She let them sit and boil without saying a word. In about twenty minutes she turned off the burners.
She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a bowl. Turning to her daughter, she asked, "Tell me what do you see?" "Carrots, eggs, and coffee," she replied.
She brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She did and noted that they got soft. She then asked her to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, she asked her to sip the coffee. The daughter smiled, as she tasted its rich aroma.
The daughter then asked, "What's the point, mother?"
Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity--boiling water--but each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard and unrelenting. However after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior. But, after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened.
The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water they had changed the water. "Which are you?" she asked her daughter. "When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot, an egg, or a coffee bean?"
Message, by Andy Pakula
The fact that you are here this morning defies the odds.
The fact that you’ve come to this particular place on this particular place is remarkable. You had to live in the right area, you had to hear about New Unity, you had to take the chance of coming that first time, you had to be in the mood to come along today… It’s all pretty unlikely so the fact that we are all here together is astounding in itself.
But even more improbable is the fact that any one of us exists at all. A Harvard Law School blogger called Ali Binazir has estimated that probability.
First - the chance of your father and mother meeting. It’s probably about 1 in 20,000. But that’s just to meet! They had to stay together long enough to have a baby, and the odds against that are about 2,000 to 1.
So far then, the odds against you coming into being are about 40 million to one! Feeling special yet?
Consider that for you to be created required the one particular egg from your mother and one unique sperm from your father to find each other, and that’s really, really unlikely - only one in 400 quadrillion. That’s a four with 17 zeros after it. It’s roughly the volume of the Atlantic ocean in cubic metres.
But that incredibly improbably event is nothing compared to the fact that any of this existed at all. For your father and mother to come into being required a chain of unlikely events to fall the right way all the way back to the beginning of life on earth. And that is astoundingly unlikely. The odds are only one in a number that is far beyond the ones we’ve given names to. It is 10 with 45,000 zeros following it. And that number is larger than the number of particles in the universe. And if every one of those particles was itself a universe, the number of particles in all those universes put together would still be smaller than 10 followed by 45,000 zeros.
Putting this all together, the odds of you existing at all are 1 in 10 followed by 2,685,000 zeros.
How unlikely is that?
Imagine that 2 million people played a game of dice together with trillion-sided dice and they all rolled once and came up with the exact same number. That’s about the probability that you would have come to be born.
You are amazing. You are unique. Billions of years of unlikely events had to happen and difficult challenges overcome for you to happen. If anything can fairly deserve this description, you - each one of you - is a miracle.
In each of our lives after the immensely improbable fact of our birth, we have faced and overcome more challenges. For most of us, the word ‘challenges’ seems far too mild to describe what we’ve been through. If not from your own life, you know from others that human existence is inevitably touched by heart-breaking loss. We are all affected by illness of varying severity - sometimes with pain and sometimes enough to prevent us from living as we would choose. We may be treated cruelly. We may be attacked, assaulted, robbed, and abused. We may have had our hearts broken. We may suffer with mental illness or addiction. We may have known the pain of guilt and shame when we have done wrong to others.
You may have felt weak and at a loss sometimes, but you made it. You may have felt hopeless. But you are strong - strong enough to get here. You are the product of an incredibly unlikely story of billions of survival.
Others might not have made it through as well as you did. You had the strength to get through everything that was thrown at you.
That too is remarkable and amazing.
The fact that we have made it - the reality that we can arrive and care and interact and laugh and cry - this speaks of the great strengths we each carry.
The story I told earlier about a mother’s advice about facing adversity reminds us of the different strengths we bring and how the way we respond to adversity can determine the effect it will have on us.
There are the carrots. They seem firm and solid - quite imperturbable. But adversity and make them lose their strength altogether. They become so soft as to be unable to hold themselves together - much less to change the situation they are in.
There are the eggs. They begin with a flowing, flexible heart. In adversity, they become tough and hard - inflexible and resistant to influences.
And there are those like the coffee. In adversity, they bloom. They are not destroyed or rendered weak. In fact, their influence spreads throughout the whole system, which it influences, changes and improves.
The strengths that helped us to survive and even thrive in the face of adversity are not the only strengths we should think of. In fact, our adversity can give us even greater strengths than these.
When I think about my own life, and think of the aspects of myself that I value most, most of them come from the hardships I have suffered. Had I never had deep sorrow, I would not know how to be compassionate. If I had not come from a people whose history is filled with oppression, I would not have a passion for justice. If I had not experienced the terrible pain of social exclusion, I would not believe so very strongly in radically inclusive community.
Often, the very wounds we suffer change us for the better. Think about the words from Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem:
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.”
You have gained such strengths over the course of your life. Every hardship, if we do not let it harden us like a boiled egg or soften us like a cooked carrot, can be a source of growth and new strengths.
You are an amazing improbable being and you have survived. You are strong and you can grow stronger. You owe it to yourself to turn adversities into strengths. And you owe it to this world, for the future needs us to be both strong and good today.
May each challenge be for you a source of new strength
May each pain yield a new understanding and greater connection to others
And each frustration lead you to greater persistence and hope.
Life is possibility
Let adversity not stop you, but lead you to ever greater strength
For yourself. For them. For a world that needs loving strength.