Beyond Our Control

Sermon by Rev. Sue Browning

How many here have seen the Prudential Insurance TV commercial with the yellow and blue magnets?

[See the video clip at the end of this post.]

Here is the set-up. There is a crowd of people in a park, diverse in age and background. There are two huge magnetic boards, billboard size. The two boards are not quite in view of one another. The first board is labelled ‘Past’ and everyone in the crowd is asked to choose refrigerator type magnets with words and place them on the board on them to describe past experiences. Words like ‘Graduation’ …’First Car’ … ‘Presents at Christmas’  – the good things are posted with yellow magnets. Blue magnets are used for negative things: ‘Death of Grandmother’…’Failed a Class’ … ‘Lost a Ring’…

The same exercise is repeated for The Future. Yellow for good things the participant thinks will happen for them. Blue for bad stuff.

Once all the magnets are in place, the camera draws back you see both the Past and Future boards covered in magnets.

The Future board is 80 % or so covered in yellow. The ‘what we think will happen’ has a collectively optimistic view. The Past board – the account of actual life – is a mix, about 50/50.

The title of the commercial is: ‘Bring Your Challenges.’ Looking at the Past board another possible title might be, ‘Life is a Mixed Bag.’

In our reading ‘Doors opening, doors closing on us’ poet Marge Piercy imagines life’s  transitions as doors. She says, “the image of a door is liminal”

Liminal most closely means threshold. It’s the in between part when we’ve let go of the ‘before moments’ and all the structures and assumptions that held the past together, yet it is also when the new stuff is not in place. Fluid moments. Piercy’s words again.

….the image of a door is liminal … …Inside to outside, light into dark, dark into light, cold into warm, known into strange, safe into terror, wind into stillness, silence into noise or music.

We go through liminal times. At times we prepare and plan, or at least we think we prepare and plan for the doors. Other times there we are, with no warning. We enter temporary situations and long term ones. We pass through doors alone, or with partners, or with communities.

Other blue magnets. …’Loss of Job’…’Hospitalization’ …’Broken Engagement.’

If I could have zoomed in, I’m guessing I would have seen at least a few magnets saying, ‘Home Fire’ and ‘Car Accident’ – tough material losses. Likely I’d see ‘Lost Friendship’ and ‘Diagnosed with ____.”  If we could interview a participant or two, I’m confident we’d hear of losses that came intertwined, as chain reactions or braids, or in knots. Losses are like that.

While some experiences are clear “yellow-magnet moments” – say ‘Graduation’ or ‘Won the Lottery’ and there are many good times, often our joys are interwoven with our sorrows. For magnets saying ‘Retirement’ or ‘Moved to Florida’ we might want to post in both blue and yellow. Even something like high school graduation comes with change, and with change comes loss.

Maybe we need a few green magnets for these times when blue and yellow are almost stirred together. A mix common enough we have an oft used word, ‘bittersweet.’

What about the losses unlikely to even make the board. Bumps we dismiss. Some experiences seeming too odd to post – embarrassing times, losses we judge as too small. Maybe a time your birthday was forgotten, or a time you gave a gift and it went unacknowledged. How about the thank you note you never sent?  Times that sting. Regrets

Let’s get it out there. How about the time a deer or rabbit ate the garden, or a bad cold ruined weekend plans? Sometimes there are nagging threads in our lives. Threads that we tug, that are tugged by others. The tender spots where our questions and doubts settle deep – maybe a relationship with a sibling or co-worker we wish was different?

At times doors open and close faster than we’d like. Not in our control, yet our path is through the doors. Or doors opening and closing too slowly. Or rooms where the door seems stuck.

And losses that come with aging. The first trying on of reading glasses at the drug store, hoping no one will notice? (Or seeing folks checking out reading glasses and realizing they are 10 years younger than you are.) Or that ‘reality moment’ when you realize climbing a step ladder is no longer wise. How about the time when a doctor’s office is not willing to take more Medicare patients?

Where do the losses of our dreams fit in?

During World War II 13-year-old Anne Frank’s began her diary in June 1942. She writes, “I hope I shall be able to confide in you completely, as I have never been able to do in anyone before, and I hope that you will be a great support and comfort to me.” On these private pages Anne begins with optimism and profound observations of her inner most hopes.

 By October 1943 we hear a shift. Anne’s words, “I wander from room to room, climb up and down the stairs and feel like a songbird whose wings have been ripped off and who keeps hurling itself against the bars of its dark cage.”

By July 1944, Anne reflects, “… ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered … yet in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

There is loneliness in the loss a dream, especially a dream never shared.

Rev. Rebecca Parker, a UU minister, reminds us that human beings are capable of being hurt. She reminds us we are vulnerable souls, our bodies and emotions tied and we need to balance our love of reason and intellect to make space for the whole of us. In the last several decades Unitarian Universalism’s services reflect this understanding and make more and more space for heart.  (Reason and Reverence, William R. Murry, 56-7)

This week, with the pope in town, I’ve watched hours of Roman Catholic services on TV. ‘The Mass’ celebrated time and again in DC, and NY, and Philadelphia. The ritual is rich – a sacramental tradition where repetition of long-practiced services offers space for introspection. Liturgies connect through all of the senses. Movement, smells, taste. Music. Lighting choices. Members here and elsewhere have shared with me, “I envy something about the Catholics and their sense of ritual.”

This week was also Yom Kippur, also a time of sacred ritual. Connecting to the body through fasting, and patterns of long-said prayer. A time of turning and letting go, guided by ritual.

Rituals that make space for loss and healing.

Virtually all communities have clear rituals of support and love at the time of death. Cards, casseroles and brownies, and memorial services. These actions of ritual matter and the care is felt by those who have suffered immediate loss. Through these rituals, the community too sees it has value in holding members who are hurting – who are vulnerable. At our best, we offer care in our listening and gentle presence for a grieving friend even after the formal rituals are over.

For some other blue-magnet experiences, institutions kick in with support, and benefits or insurance help with the loss. Some losses have a beginning, middle and end, more or less. A broken leg that heals with time, buoyed by a friend’s offer of a ride to  PT.

While many losses though come with predictable rituals, times of loss and challenge are often lonely.

Where do we turn in these times? How to we make space for loss and concern?

Often during our time of reflection and prayer each week, I (or others) include the words, ‘You are not alone.’  Some may hear these words, ‘You are not alone’ as a reminder of community that those present and beyond our walls ready to walk with you. Others may hear ‘You are not alone’ as an invitation to reach up and around to the greater mystery and a sense of being held by the universe and the holy, however this force is named. For others, ‘You are not alone’ is an invitation to quiet and making space to hear that still small voice within.

To gather regularly – every week –  is in and of itself a ritual. Coming to a place of care and listening time again and again creates sanctuary and makes space for this special work of care.

Richard Carlson, an author best known for his book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, also wrote What About the Big Stuff? In this latter book he tells of a time when he was helping a friend move and severely twisted his back. His immediate reaction – to cry out in pain, clench his fists and curl up on the floor as every muscle tightened in agony around the injured spot. His friend chose to offer reassurance and guidance saying, “Richard, soften around the pain and it will be okay.”

Rather than harden to the pain this was an invitation to let go rather than fight the suffering. Carlson found this a life lesson and shares, “Softening to our pain offers us an alternative from a lifetime of tightening, fighting, and running from that which we dislike and fear. We are so accustomed to…holding, cursing, squeezing, and tightening everything we associate with pain or grief.” As he softened he shares the pain moved from unbearable to manageable. He now talks of a conscious softening.

Carlson finds value in softening around disappointment. He asks we imagine the difference between being a disappointed child and watching a disappointed child. In the latter, you are one step removed, slightly detached. In this slightly detached place he observes it is easier for us to have compassion for the child who is in pain. Carlson says, “So, too is it easy to have compassion for yourself when you learn to soften, when you become the one who is noticing.”

The softening, a gentleness is seeing ‘what is’ – the making room – the letting be.

A sense of mindfulness, and practice of not so much letting go, but a letting be.

In our struggles, sometimes we’re pulled back to the Past Boards of our lives – reminded life  isn’t all blue magnets. Our struggles, and challenges and uncertainties are layered in joys and the pleasant moments of the day to day. Our challenges are sandwiched with laughter and success. Many past places of pain and struggle have healed, at least some. Some scars and tender spots, yes. But it’s from this mix of life experiences that we have perspective to look ahead.  There is power in joys shared.

Look around you here. Really look. All around. Everyone has a story. Experiences of a mix of yellow and blue magnets. Stories we each carry of loss are there.

In community we make room for the never-ending cycles of the human experience. We walk knowing all face loss. We travel knowing we need one another. We travel best is a spirit of soft and gentle love.  (This sermon was immediately followed with the following Embracing Meditation.)

 Embracing Meditation

I invite you into a time of reflection and meditation. A time of prayer. We begin taking time to quietly pass our candles. (Music while individual candles were passed to everyone.) Today our time of reflection and prayer is about these tender spots, places held in our hearts. Times of loss and pain.

Second Reading:  The Layers, by Stanely Kunitz

As we pass the light (everyone’s small candles were lit) we pass the flame in gentleness – gentleness for our own lives, gentleness for one another.

For our many experiences, I light many candles up front this morning.

A candle for joys

A candle for sorrows

A candle for hopes

A candle for dreams.

A candle of longing.

One for the bumps and bruises.

One for disappointments of all sizes.

A candle of for paths of opening…for light streaming in windows.

A candle of gratitude

Picture layers, imagine doors. May these candles remind us of our shared humanity. May this moment call us to compassion for ourselves and for one another…more is yet to unfold. In our shared layers we hold one another in gentle kindness and love.

May you find peace.


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