This One Lifetime

“This One Lifetime”

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto

July 31, 2016

©Rev. Mary McKinnon Ganz


We begin today with a poem by Jane Hirshfield. It’s called, “Tree.”

Who are you? What are you called to do? As we come together in religious community, these are the classic questions. It’s a question for each of us as individuals, and for us as a church community: Who are WE? What are WE called to do?

Personally, I am haunted by the question posed in Jane Hirshfield’s poem. “Even in this one lifetime, you will have to choose. / That great, calm being / This clutter of soup-pots and books …”  I imagine a cabin in the woods; I imagine standing at my kitchen sink, among my dishes, looking out the window at that great tree. Or being startled out of my deepest reading trance by the tap of the branchtips. As long as I am in that cabin in the woods, I think, the poet is wrong: I don’t have to choose.

And yet, my own life is nothing like that. I live in the suburbs, not the woods. My house is sometimes so cluttered that the piles of books and the piles of dishes practically run together. And outside the window of my other job are city sidewalks; when I walk there from BART, I could trip over people who are hungry.

So if immensity is tapping at my life, it better tap loud.

Is it like that for you, here on the Peninsula? Even here, there are hungry people.  There is separation here, too. And a clutter of causes, waiting to call you out of your cabins.

What brought you to church? This Unitarian Universalist church I mean. What is it you are looking for, here?

As individuals, we have a tendency to think we have to choose between that cabin in the woods with its tree growing up so close, and engagement in the world. Between our inner, spiritual lives and our work to improve our communities. And in Unitarian Universalist congregations, sometimes we can get hung up, too, on what “immensity” is, or isn’t —- thinking we have to choose between the idea of a God who watches over us, and going through our days unmoved by a sense of awe for all that life is.

And yet, our tradition and our movement are teeming with people who refused to make such choices:

James Luther Adams, the great theologian and ethicist, is one. He brought a sense of immensity to our work to repair the world. Here are his words: “The holy thing in life is participation in those processes that give body and form to universal Justice.” (repeat).

Dick Gilbert, activist minister for many years in Rochester, New York, and other congregations, wrote these words: I challenge the seeming contradiction between prayer and politics, contemplation and action, being and doing. We should not talk about putting faith into action or religion into practice as if faith did not include action or religion, practice. Spiritual and social are in a dialogue so interwoven it is hard to distinguish one from the other.”

Kay Jorgensen, co-founder of the Faithful Fools Street Ministry and my mentor, made it a deep spiritual practice to walk with people who are homeless and struggling, asking always this deeply self-reflective question, “What holds me separate? What keeps me separated? As I walk the streets, what still connects me?”

This is what I learned from Kay: when we work for justice, when we work to improve our communities, when we teach our children in our religious education programs or when we visit the sick in our own community, it is essential to make our reflection as strong as our action.

And oh my friends, the work of action and the work of reflection are so desperately needed in these times. We need strong action, strong reflection. And we need to know how to weave them together, so we can move, seamlessly, from one to the other.

I need to talk a bit about what I mean when I say “reflection,” or when I say, “contemplation,” because I think these words are often misunderstood, and also because my own sense of what they mean has been changing. Certainly, making the time to review your life — decisions you have made, the direction you are traveling — is part of it. Happy birthday, Sue! – the year before a “big” birthday coming up is a good time to do that reflection. And reviewing how we spend our days, as Kailee does – the smaller, day-to-day decisions, that do or do not leave time for the things that give us joy — that’s reflection too. On the individual level, I think we all get that. But when we reflect together as a community, sometimes I hear people grumble. “All we do is sit around, writing stuff on a flipchart,” I have heard. “Let’s get out and do something!”

We live in a “just do it” culture, and the “flipchart” image may hit perilously close to home in UU circles. But that is not what I mean, when I say “reflection.” I do mean, taking the time to sit with one’s own experience, and to share and listen to the experience of others. I do mean, listening to everybody’s point of view; knowing that this is part of the action we are taking; knowing that our action is stronger when everyone has been heard. As Margaret Wheatley said, “There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” The conversations we need to have before action, are reflection — and they are also part of the action.

And after-action reflection is just as necessary. What did we learn, in our action for justice? How was our action anti-racist and anti-oppressive? I can’t stress this enough. If you look around this morning, you will mostly see faces that are white. Of course not everyone who looks white, is, and it is important to remember that people are revealed in their marvelous diversity through very many ways. But in this community, it is probably safe to say that very many of us identify as white, and those of us who do need to be especially careful to ensure that our well-intentioned actions are not undertaken in ways that reinforce systems of white supremacy that redound to our benefit, at the expense of people of color. That of course, is a whole nother sermon, or maybe a year’s worth of sermons. But for today, just this: it is my strong belief that, as a white person seeking to bend the arc of the universe toward justice, it is essential that I reflect long and hard, with an antiracism lens, on the implications of any action I am moved to take.

Over the years, this action-reflection-action model of justicemaking has become natural to me, almost as natural as breathing. But my sense of what is needed has changed.

Our whole society is addicted to action. Isn’t it so? Sue mentioned needing to have an answer for that ubiquitous question, “What do you do?” Did that ring true for any of you? And maybe, in response to the question, “How are you,” you might roll your eyes and say, “Busy!” – in a way that acknowledges some fatigue, but also holds onto a sense of prestige at being important and wanted and needed.

We allow ourselves to be defined, so often, by our work, by what we do. Often it is a key building block of identity, and thus our sense of status in the world.

But it wasn’t always so. Before the Enlightenment, contemplation was a higher cultural value than action; the more a person had to work, or care for others, or make things, the less time they had to be still – less time to meditate, less time to pray or think deeply. These were thought to be the true treasures of a life well lived.

Now I know that many of you here are accomplished meditators. Probably some of you pray.

 For the past year and a half I have been studying Spiritual Direction in a program that looks at human struggles through a contemplative lens. Contemplatives, in the words of the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn, look “deeply at life as it is in the very here and now.” To do that, I have to free myself from orientation to the self – from the sense that I am the central character in my life’s drama, or that life is all about me. Free myself from ego, from small-s self.

“To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.” These are the words of Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. He continued, “To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.”

Some of you meditators may have a sense of what Williams means, when he calls Contemplative Practice “a deeply revolutionary matter.” Perhaps meditation has begun a revolution in your own life, and opened you to what the Quaker philosopher Thomas Kelly called a “continually renewed immediacy.” Or what Teilhard de Chardin called, “the world becoming luminous from within, as one plunges breathlessly into human activity.”

Plunging breathlessly into human activity, seeing the luminous within everything — this is what I have glimpsed when action flows into reflection and back into action, seamlessly. When each action is undertaken as a response to the here and now, to the continually renewed immediacy of what is. This is life fully immersed in the clutter of soup-pots and books, and equally fully immersed in the immensity of possibility that is human life. No need to choose.

But because we are human beings, and we live within the constraints of space and time, we must, sometimes, choose. We must choose, sometimes, to put aside our worthy activity, and sit still, because it is by doing so that we may begin to learn to watch our minds, to know that we are not our thoughts or our emotions, and to begin to let go of ego, so we can see the world as it truly is.

This is important – more important, I believe, at this moment in history, than in any other time in my lifetime. We need to be able to see clearly, so we can respond truthfully to what is real in this moment. We need to be able to hear the frightful, dystopian vision that uses fear to make followers out of so many in our nation just now. We need to hear it and acknowledge it, but not enter it. Seeing clearly, we respond by putting forward a more powerful vision – of hope, possibility, and progress in protecting those on the margins. Yes, we have far to go – and, my friends, we have the courage to go there.

And here is where I would take a stab at answering that question I posed at the beginning. Why do you come to church? Now this may not be true for all of us, but for some of us, I think, maybe many of us, it’s this: We are here, in church, because we have a sense that we are called – as individuals, and as a community – to bring forth the better world we know in our hearts is possible. This is the call I hear in the Mission Statement of this church: we come here “to transform ourselves, each other, and the world.” We are here, members of a religious community, because this is one place we find space for action and for reflection – space for the clutter of all the important things that need doing, and space for listening quietly as immensity taps at our life.

I want to end with a story — maybe you have heard it — from the Jewish mystical tradition. The Kabbalists imagined the creation of the world as a pouring out of divine light into holy vessels. But during the pouring-out, there was a catastrophe! — the vessels shattered, scattering the light all over the world.

Repair of the world – “tikkun olam” – happens when we bring back the light – when we achieve liberation for ourselves and others. When we remove the constraints of whatever holds us back from being fully human, whatever keeps our individual light from shining. We repair the world when we grow our souls! We repair the world when we join together to help each other shine, the way we do when we sit with one another when we are sick or sad, or when we are working together to come to a shared sense of right action for justice. We repair the world when we say no to fear; yes, to love and hope. We repair the world when we bring our lights together, creating Beloved Community.

Let’s let it shine.

Sermon Sources & Inspirations

  • James Luther Adams, On Being Human Religiously
  • Richard S. Gilbert, The Prophetic Imperative
  • Kay Jorgensen, conversations over many years
  • Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion
  • Parker Palmer, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring
  • Richard Rohr, “The Contemplative Mind Is a Mind Liberated from Itself,” May 17, 2016
  • Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, “Nurturing the Call: Spiritual Guidance Program”
  • Margaret Wheatley, Turning to One Another