We each arrive here today as we are,
With the marks of everything that we have lived.
The experiences of our lives have hurt and strengthened us.
They have made us who we are.
The experiences of our present and future are the raw materials of who we will become.
May this light kindle a refining blaze,
So we may draw from this rough ore of our lives,
The pure silver of compassion,
And the gleaming gold of love.
Reading: Becoming by Jim Harrison
Nowhere is it the same place as yesterday.
None of us is the same person as yesterday.
We finally die from the exhaustion of becoming.
This downward cellular jubilance is shared
by the wind, bugs, birds, bears and rivers,
and perhaps the black holes in galactic space
where our souls will all be gathered in an invisible
thimble of antimatter. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Yes, trees wear out as the wattles under my chin
grow, the wrinkled hands that tried to strangle
a wife beater in New York City in 1957.
We whirl with the earth, catching our breath
as someone else, our soft brains ill-trained
except to watch ourselves disappear into the distance.
Still, we love to make music of this puzzle.
Message part 1 by Rev Andy Pakula
When I lived in the Boston area in Massachusetts, I became very accustomed to my drive from where I lived in Lexington to where I was a graduate student in Cambridge. As I was a graduate for seven (!) years and since I went in to the lab six or seven days every week, that journey became very natural to me. So much so that, often, when I got in the car to go somewhere else, I ended up in Cambridge.
And then - like the Talking Heads - I would say ‘how did I get here?!’ I was driving in automatic mode before cars were self-driving. Part of my mind was able to take control while my conscious thoughts were elsewhere.
Many of us are not very conscious of the paths we travel as we become who we are. We may not even notice how we are changing and we’re even less likely to connect the dots to what has caused us to change. We don’t recognise how we became good at this or fearful about that. How did we get be compassionate, outgoing, anxious, self-centred, driven, passive, assertive, angry, biased, open-minded, religious, sceptical, artistic, timid, or adventurous?
Shout out a few adjectives that describe the way you are in the world…
So, how did we get here? How did we become these people we are? We know that part of the story is genetics. Identical twins who were separated at birth and raised in completely different environments wind up with remarkable similarities.
There were the British twins Daphne Goodship and Barbara Herbert who were adopted into separate homes after their single mother died. They were reunited at age 40 and discovered that their four decades apart did not make them drastically different from each other. They both left school at the same age, worked in local government, met their husbands at the same age, miscarried the same month and each gave birth to two boys and a girl. They both drink their coffee cold and usee the same brands of products.
There has always been dispute about how much role genetics plays in who we become versus the effect of all the experiences of our lives. Some contend that genetics determines almost everything based on evidence like that from twin studies. Others argue that we are absolutely nothing but the sum of our experiences. At this point, the weight of the evidence suggests that both experience and genetics play a role but that experience is more important.
Genetics may determine aspects of how we respond to experiences but it seems to be the experiences large and small that chart the course of our lives and shape our personalities. The effects of experience are complex and they are interlinked. Think about Dr. Who - it should be easy since his or her time travelling Tardis is on the cover of your handout. Dr. Who knows all too well that a small change at some time can lead to big changes in a future time. When I think of the timeline of my life, in many ways, I regret spending so many years studying and working in the field of science.
But then, if I hadn’t gone to graduate school for science, I wouldn’t have met my wife. If I hadn’t met my wife, Miriam, our son wouldn’t be born and Miriam wouldn’t have encouraged us to go to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I would never have become a minister and - even if I had - I wouldn’t be here because I wouldn’t be following Miriam to come to London for two years (twelve years ago).
And we can go back further. I wouldn’t have gone to graduate school if I hadn’t chosen to be a doctor, studied science in Uni, and then changed my mind about medicine. And I wouldn’t have chosen to be a doctor if it hadn’t been for two cool High School science teachers who let us call them by their first names - Steve and Barbara - and got me more interested in biology. Or maybe part of the cause was the microscope set I received as a gift when I was a young child.
So many influences large and small make us who we are today. It would be fascinating and probably terrifying if we could see all the potential futures that might have been ours if things had been just a bit different. But here we are. It’s hard to know exactly how we got here but we do know that what happened to us and the choices we made played the largest part. Experiences and choices determined our present. They will determine our futures. What experiences are you choosing? Be careful - they are determining who you are becoming.
Reading: A Tear And A Smile by Khalil-Gibran (adapted)
I would not exchange the sorrows of my heart
For the joys of the multitude.
And I would not have the tears that sadness makes
To flow from my every part turn into laughter.I would that my life remain a tear and a smile.
A tear to purify my heart and give me understanding
Of life's secrets and hidden things.
A smile to draw me nigh to the sons [and daughters] of my kind [...]
A tear to unite me with those of broken heart;
A smile to be a sign of my joy in existence.
I would rather that I died in yearning and longing than that I live Weary and despairing.
I want the hunger for love and beauty to be in the
Depths of my spirit,for I have seen those who are
Satisfied the most wretched of people.
I have heard the sigh of those in yearning and Longing, and it is sweeter than the sweetest melody.
With evening's coming the flower folds her petals
And sleeps, embracing her longing.
At morning's approach she opens her lips to meet
The sun's kiss.
The life of a flower is longing and fulfilment.
A tear and a smile.[...]
Message part 2 by Rev Andy Pakula
If we think now of some of the adjectives that describe your personality and your way of being now - and if we search our minds and hearts for the experiences that shaped them - we will certainly realise that it was not only the positive experiences that shaped what is best about us.
Of course, it is wonderful to be able to celebrate along with others and we probably can not do that authentically unless we too have had experiences of great joy. Experiences of victory, success, acclamation, praise, and the like will help us become confident and sure. They may help us to have enough self-esteem to feel joy for the successes of others.
But the qualities we may be most proud of - the ones that allow us to support those who are in pain and the ones that allow us to overcome suspicion and hatred come from harder experiences. Being bullied and teased as a child helped me to understand the pain of social exclusion. My ministry would probably be very different today if not for that pain.
Compassionate is perhaps one of the most powerful positive adjectives we might come up with to describe ourselves. From the word’s derivation, compassionate means to suffer with - to recognise another’s pain so much that we can understand it deeply and even begin to feel it ourselves. We can’t be compassionate if we have not ourselves suffered. We can’t truly know what it is to be rejected unless we also have had that experience.
We all have pain. We all have unmet needs and longings. Compassion - born of our own experiences of suffering is the tool we need to understand and relate to both friends and enemies. We need to experience life’s highs and lows to become people who can truly understand - and therefore love others.
You may be remembering those times when pain made you anything but compassionate. Suffering can make us compassionate and open. It can also make us angry, defensive, and frightened. We are changed not only by our experiences but by how we integrate and respond to them. The same experience that can make you open and caring to others can make you angry and hateful. It is all in how we react and how we understand them. It is in how we look back and craft the stories of our lives.
It is not too late to mine compassion from our suffering. We can revisit those experiences and relate them to how others feel. Our suffering need not have been in vain.
And for the future, you have the opportunity to seek out new experiences or avoid them. You have the power to influence how you will react to and integrate difficult experiences. Will that conflict or that hurtful comment make you fearful and defensive or is it an opportunity to practice curiosity and to learn about the pain of another?
May you use all your experiences to bring out your best self - to help you become the most compassionate, loving, and justice seeking person you may be.
May it be so.
Remembering Guy Bentham
Before we turn to candles of joy and sorrow now, I want to remember one sorrow that struck this congregation eight years ago.
When we were legally two separate congregations, Guy Bentham was chair of the Newington Green congregation. He was here when I arrived and he worked with me to help New Unity become the place it is today. It could not have happened without him.
Guy was married to his partner, Franck Bordese, in this chapel in 2009. Franck is here today. That wedding was a glorious and happy day. Tragically, Guy died suddenly a bit more than a year later. It was a huge loss for all who loved him and also for the congregation.
Today, just a few days after Guy would have turned sixty years old, we remember Guy for the kind, loving, insightful person he was, for the empty space his loss created in so many lives, including the life of this congregation.
From your pain may you derive compassion for others.
From your suffering, may you understand the suffering of all beings.
May you learn the love that sees beyond hurt, beyond pain, beyond anger,
To the worth, dignity, and good that lie within.
May it be so.