Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Wisdom of Sacrifice

Over the last two weeks, I’ve heard lots of deep concern and appreciation for the medical personnel who are on the frontline confronting the Covid-19 epidemic, risking exposure and literally putting their own health—and that of their family’s—at risk. I’ve also had conversations with physicians about it, and I’m truly inspired by them. The three I talked to have said, “I know that as a doctor I will most likely contract the virus. It is the nature of the current fight against the virus that doctors are taken out in waves as they contract it, but all of us who get better and can return to work, we shall have immunity and the ability to treat infected people with no further concern of contracting it again.” Some doctors who have fallen ill, they almost nearly hope they have contracted the virus so that their bodies shall build resistance to it so that they can return to treating patients without further worry. 

All of these conversations are making me think about the nature of sacrifice. The word sacrifice comes from the latin sacrocere which has the same root as the word sacred. Sacrifice originally meant to make sacred, to make holy. To give something up of great material value on behalf of a larger or transcendent value. A sacrifice is a signal that what you’re making a sacrifice for is more important than what you are offering up—and what you’re offering up may be the most valuable thing you have. 

In the early biblical times, the Jews didn’t eat meat much because meat was so expensive, especially beef. When the ancient Jewish people offered up a fatted calf to Yahweh, they were offering up the most valuable thing they had for the sake of being in right relationship with their god. 

This past week, all around the world, people have been called upon to give up their independence, to sacrifice our freedom to move about wherever and with whomever we want, and instead sequester ourselves at home for the sake of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Sure, you may say, most everyone is staying at home to protect themselves and their loved ones. Yes, and

I’d like to suggest, in the words of the late UU minister A Powell Davies: "There’s a sort of duality in each of us, a conversation within our innermost thoughts. Some of us will call the nobler voice within to be the voice of God, not literally, of course, but in source and spiritual vitality. Others of us will call it our better nature. But no matter what we call it, its presence is a firm reality.” We cultivate our inner lives, and thereby raise the quality of all our living, by giving specific time and attention to discerning and participating in this better nature of ours. I call this cultivation of our inner thoughts with our heart and spirit, spiritual practice. And, as Davies says, “To the extent that we see the world more clearly and ourselves and our part in it more plainly, we gain wisdom, clarity, sureness of direction; and this, in turn, relieves the tension that the world imposes on us—much of which is due to vacillation and uncertainty — and brings us closer to serenity.”

Who would have thought that in the year 2020, the world economy would be brought to its knees. It’s really scary what’s happening—all the uncertainty and anxiety. In today’s American culture, sacrifice seems foolhardy. Why ever give up something of especial material value? But in another perspective, one where there is a faith in love, a deep affirmation of the worth and dignity of all people, a recognition that we are all interconnected, how can we not give the best of ourselves and what we have for the sake of others, especially others who are suffering?

For us today and in every era, what is more important than money? What is more important than our independence? What is more important than even our own health and well-being? In this time, we are all called upon to make sacrifices.

I’ve enjoyed listening to exuberant expressions of gratitude at 8pm. This outpouring of spirit celebrates our health care workers. Let’s also think about who also is putting themselves at risk of exposure each and every day: grocery store staff, pharmacy workers, truck drivers, garbage collectors, people who harvest our food, prepare it or work at the factories to process or wrap it. It’s also a time to honor the service of police and firefighters—and firefighters are also EMTs who do ambulance duty. I am grateful for all these people who are leaving their families several days a week for the sake of the wellbeing of the rest of us. This a time to reflect on the various levels of sacrifice that so many people are making, on behalf of our common good.

We’re in the middle of a transition that will affect our society for the rest of our lives. The way we approach it will shape who we are as individuals and as a wider society. White Eagle,  an indigenous Hopi leader wrote a week ago (I got this from adrienne marie brown on social media): “This moment humanity is going through can now be seen as a portal and as a hole. The decision to fall into the hole or go through the portal is up to you. If they don’t repent of the problem and consume the news 24 hours a day, with little energy, nervous all the time, with pessimism, they will fall into the hole. But if you take this opportunity to look at yourself, rethink life and death, take care of yourself and others, you will cross the portal.”

A friend said, “It’s like our whole culture is going through a birth canal, and what is being birthed is a deeper awareness of how interdependent we are.” At least those of us who are willing to look at ourselves, to rethink life and death, to commit to caring for ourselves and others—it is like going through a long birth canal, from which we will emerge grounded in love.

What do you want to make sacred at this time? What greater good gives your life purpose and meaning? What is worthy of your time and attention and resources? Where are you called to sacrifice at this time? 

I talked with a father of retirement age whose son is a doctor leading the response to COVID-19 at a local hospital. He had been asked what he'd do if his son gets extremely ill. The father said that he would go and tend to his son, risking his own health. Sometimes we are called to sacrifice what is materially most precious to us.

This is a time to discern what we are willing to sacrifice for. Such decisions are being made millions of times all over the world. May we help midwife a world where there is a greater recognition of the wisdom of sacrifice. May we cultivate our own spiritual practices to live fully and with love at our side, love infused in every cell of our body—so that we embody this wisdom. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Wisdom of Tenderness

On the social networking site, Nextdoor.com, an Oak Parker shared with her neighbors that she’s following the news back in China. In her hometown, she says there is a swing dancing school that has been closed for over two months and is now reopening. There’s something truly beautiful about one of the first community organizations to reopen in a town is designed to bring people together in joy and dance—and to touch one another. Apparently the long winter in China is opening up to spring.

And here we are, a mere three days into spring. Usually there are not yet daffodils up in mid March, but nearly two weeks ago while walking to the offices—when I was still walking to the offices—I spied a few small hardy daffodils that had popped open. I couldn’t believe it. This is an odd year: a mild March which is usually the cruelest of months, an early spring, and all the while the world’s population navigates a winter of the soul, collectively journeying through the valley of the shadow of death. 

The Chinese people appear to be coming out from that valley, while we here in the United States are just entering it. But it won’t last forever. I’m grateful for the many readings that you all have been sharing with me. The one that has been raised in conversations more than any other is the 23rd Psalm, for we really are journeying through the valley of the shadow of death. A contemporary version of this psalm begins May I remember in this tender moment that Love is my guide, always, shepherding me toward ways of openness and compassion. 

This month we are exploring the theme of wisdom. Months ago I had named this service The Wisdom of Tenderness. I had planned to go in a far different direction, but the wisdom of tenderness is so very much what I believe we need in this moment. This time of physical distancing is a time to become more tender with ourselves, more tender with our loved ones, more tender with our grief. Many of us struggle with connecting with our own grief, and right now those of us who must cloister ourselves away are coming face to face with our own vulnerability, with the losses in our lives, with both new grief and unresolved grief of the past. 

And so I ask: How is it with your soul? How goes the rhythm of your days? 

As many of us cloister away in our own homes, how are you settling in? It’s been a struggle for me to put boundaries around my checking the news and checking my email and phone. I hear from many of you that finding balance is challenging. This is a time for many of us to develop a new rhythm for our days. I am taking the opportunity to deepen my spiritual practice, at least before the kids are awake.  It is also a time to be grateful for all those who provide essential services, to recognize what is essential in our lives, all of our lives. 

When touching into grief and vulnerability, the tenderness of wisdom beckons. My dear friend and colleague Daniel Kanter lost his father four days ago. His parents came to visit him in Dallas over Christmas and then his father fell ill with an acute form of leukemia and was unable to return home to New England. So Daniel put his parents up in his home. Now that his father has passed, Daniel cannot gather with loved ones to mourn. Daniel’s father is Jewish. His extended family on the east coast always sits shiva when someone dies, and receive friends and family for days on end, eating and talking and telling stories. But that’s not possible now. Daniel shares that he identifies with CS Lewis who famously said in A Grief Observed, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”

Have you noticed a lot of fear lately? Maybe it’s grief that is tugging at your heart. 

Our world and our lives are changing and we are waking up to how little control we actually have. If we are tender with ourselves and honor our grief, we shall also wake up to just how big we are, to what really matters, to love.

In the coming weeks, I invite you to join me to reflect on how the wisdom of tenderness  is moving in your life. Each Tuesday at Two and Thursday at Three I will be available for whoever wants to drop in virtually via Zoom. I am also available to talk at other times, as is Rev. Emily and our Pastoral Associates. My cell phone is on the voicemail at the office.

In these challenging days, I find words from Frederick Beuchner helpful, when he summed up his decades of being a preacher and a theologian: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

One way people in China have coped with the viral storm has been sharing videos of ordinary people wearing face masks dancing and even gathering online for dance parties. Might the rhythm of your day include viewing exuberant expressions of joy or even sharing in the movement?

In this difficult time as loved ones fall ill, lose jobs, struggle with isolation, may we remember that in these tender moments, Love is our guide, always, shepherding us toward ways of openness and compassion. And life itself is grace. 

Blessed be. Amen.

As a benediction, I offer you words recently penned from Kitty O’Meara, a retired chaplain in Madison, Wisconsin:

And the people stayed home, and read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. 

Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently. 

And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed. 

May it be so. Blessed be. Amen.