Enjoy the World or Change the World?

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Chalice Lighting

We arrive together
Fresh from experiences of joy and pain
With hearts tender and often shielded
Protected from the hard experiences of life
Let the image of this flame, burn away your protection
May your heart be opened
To tears and to laughter
To darkness and light
To life
To love

Reading: This World by Mary Oliver

I would like to write a poem about the world that has in it nothing fancy.
But it seems impossible.
Whatever the subject, the morning sun glimmers it.
The tulip feels the heat and flaps its petals open and becomes a star.
The ants bore into the peony bud and there is a dark
pinprick well of sweetness.
As for the stones on the beach, forget it.
Each one could be set in gold.
So I tried with my eyes shut, but of course the birds were singing.
And the aspen trees were shaking the sweetest music out of their leaves.
And that was followed by, guess what, a momentous and
beautiful silence as comes to all of us, in little earfuls,
if we're not too hurried to hear it.
As for spiders, how the dew hangs in their webs
even if they say nothing, or seem to say nothing.
So fancy is the world, who knows, maybe they sing.
So fancy is the world, who knows, maybe the stars sing too,
and the ants, and the peonies, and the warm stones,
so happy to be where they are, on the beach,
instead of being locked up in gold.

Message (Part 1) by Rev Andy Pakula

This world is an amazing and wonderful place. If we look around us on any day, and if we look for them, we can see, feel, and smell beautiful things - there are treasures to be found in the most mundane of places: a flower, a child, the animals wild and tame. Mary Oliver’s poem mentions the wonder of the spider web, the ants, and even a warm stone. And if we look at the more spectacular features of our world, the splendor of waterfalls, mountains, wildlife, trees, and more can grab us and stop us cold.

And yet, this same world can be ugly and brutal. The natural processes that gave us beauty of flowers and the grandeur of the giant Redwood trees also gave us deadly and unspeakably cruel diseases like polio, HIV, ebola, and river blindness. It is a world where animals must devour one another to live - a world of suffering and a world of death.

Ours is a world of love and a world of hate. A world of compassion and a world of cruelty. A world of great joy and extreme sorrow. A world of conception and a world of killing. A world of nurturing and a world of neglect. In this, our last Sunday on the theme of happiness, I want to ask how we are to live in such a world. How we can dare to be happy in the face of suffering. How we can dare to mourn or rage in the face of so much beauty and plenty. Too often, we find ourselves in a dilemma: the ugliness of the world keeps us from happiness. The distress we feel leaves us unable to act to better the world.

One response is to ignore the ugliness - pretend that it does not exist. We look away from the rough sleepers as we pass them. We avoid the horrible headlines in the news each day. We engage only with a fantasy world in which all of nature is kind and anyone who wants to be happy can be. If anyone is not, it’s their own fault. Another response takes us to the opposite extreme. We deny the world’s beauty and are oriented only toward its terrors. There is no joy - only sorrow. No understanding - only anger. So we can be driven to ignore either the dark or the light. Can these be our only options?

Reading: To Savor the World or Save It, by Richard Gilbert (adapted)

I arise in the morning torn between the desire
To save the world and to savor it—
To serve life or to enjoy it—
To savor the world or save it?
The question beats in upon the waiting moment—
To savor the sweet taste of my own joy
Or to share the bitter cup of my neighbor;
To celebrate life with exuberant step
Or to struggle for the life of the heavy laden?
What am I to do—
When the guilt at my bounty
Clouds the sky of my vision;
When the glow which lights my every day
Illumines the hurting world around me?
To savor the world or save it?
[Spirit] of justice, if such there be,
Take from me the burden of my question.
Let me praise my plenitude without limit;
Let me cast from my eyes all troubled folk!
No, you will not let me be.
You will not stop my ears
To the cries of the hurt and the hungry;
You will not close my eyes
To the sight of the afflicted.
No, you will not!
[...] To savor one must serve
To savor one must save
The one will not stand without the other. [...]

Message (Part 2) by Rev Andy Pakula

Compassion or happiness - must we choose? Must we either savor the world or pour our energy into saving it? Neither path will suffice. One is selfish and allows suffering to go on unaddressed beyond our averted site. The other feels righteous but empties us out of life and light and energy. We are left brittle and angry shells. We lose the ability to love and live. We lose the very strengths that would underlie the compassion that drives our efforts.

Either path closes us off to a part of living - to the world’s beauty or its ugliness. I don’t believe we are made that way. Our eyes are either open to all sights or none. Our ears hear laughter and screams or they hear nothing. If we cannot feel the pain of a fist aimed in anger, we can not feel the warmth of an embrace.

A few weeks ago, I listened to an activist talk about his experience helping refugees on Lesvos. The conditions were horrible. The refugees were devastated after months of physical hardship and of living in almost constant danger. After such an ordeal, they reached what they thought would be safety only to find themselves treated cruelly, robbed of their humanity, and condemned to wait without any end in sight - warehoused like things rather than people. I expected this part of his tale. I anticipated the horror of it.

And then - in the next moment - he smiled and talked about how wonderful the camps were. There, he found children who reacted with joy and the slightest kindness - who took great pleasure from finding or creating the simplest plaything. There, he encountered the beauty of human compassion and the love that can grow strong between all people - whether those being helped and those helping. There, he encountered the best of human goodness - refugees who found the strength and decency to take care of others in their situation and even to show kindness to the helpers who were so much better off than they.

The joy he carried along with the outrage and pain was what drove him - what made the work meaningful - what created the energy and passion to get up each day and help more - the drive to go back again and again.

Truly living means opening ourselves up - being sensitive and susceptible to all of life - its wonders and its terrors. Let us be tender and open to the world - to all it brings. Only then will be have the ability to truly savour this world and to save it.

May it be so.

Closing Words

This world is full of light and dark,
Joy and sorrow,
Pleasure and pain.
Don’t look away from either.
Open your heart to it all.
Open your heart to life.
Open your heart to love.