This summer is winding down with more questions than answers. How are you planning for this fall? Where are you finding hope in uncertain times? At this service with Rev. Sue Browning we’ll explore advice from writer Margaret Wheatley to ask (and keep asking) “What’s possible?” rather than ‘What’s wrong?”
Text of Sermon, “Possibilities in Uncertain Times’ – Rev. Sue Browning, September 5, 2021
I recently watched the PBS series ‘Home Fires.’ It is set in England during early World War 2 in a small town outside Liverpool. Great Britain has just declared war on Germany in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
Who will be called to serve in the military? Who will volunteer to serve? How will the roles for those at home shift? Will the community be ready for attacks by air, sea or on land? Will they be ready if bombed?
One show description notes, “…they find themselves under increasing and extraordinary pressures in a rapidly fragmenting world.” Pressures in a fragmenting world.
We are not living through a war in this way, yet I sense some parallels.
We are watching hospitals gear up to hit capacity limits, at least in parts of the country. We are witnessing parents and teachers figuring out school plans for the year, with fights over the most basic of protocols – masks.
Many in Louisiana are still without power, and with little warning, this week remnants of Hurricane Ida hit the Mid Atlantic – a tornado near Annapolis, and almost 50 lives lost as water swept away cars and trapped people in basements in NJ and NY.
Images this week of a deadly exit from a long war. And this same week, a loss of women’s reproductive rights in a manner that jolted settled law. Safe options thwarted.
I go back and forth in how I understand the toll of these past 18 months. Most often I rationalize – I’m safe, with adaptations manageable. Most of those I know well are getting by. We’re ‘ok.’ And then I realize people are worn down. The air is out of our sails. And too I remember the sharing of sorrows of this congregation; candles lit for the loss of your extended family members.
It’s hard to rally for another year where uncertainty dominates our lives. Our bodies feeling a sense of disconnect with heart and soul. As we approach these next months, what might we learn from those who have come before?
In ‘Home Fires’ war is the backdrop. The story told is in the responses – the resilience. From the likable, common sense, albeit slightly anxious, town butcher, to the tenacious farm wife, to the town doctor with his own diagnosis , the community walks together through unprecedented challenges. They work with incomplete information, and have limited time to pivot to address what is next. Leadership arises from unexpected corners. There were times when one was grieving, that another smoothly stepped in.
One antidote to the stress that comes with continued uncertainty is to direct our energy toward identifying fresh possibilities. When we seek possibilities – when we look for what might be – we drop a bit of our resistance to uncertainty. We look up just a bit.
Discovering the power of possibility in volatile times is rarely about blind optimism. We can’t afford to disconnect from the needs of our times and be too ‘pie in the sky.’ It doesn’t feel like the authentic response. It is likely not a safe response. We need to pay attention.
Seeing what is possible often starts when we name our challenge, or the challenges of our neighbors and ask, ‘Is there a way to lessen pain and affirm life?’ Embracing possibility comes as we work to find solutions to problems.
In the show ‘Home Fires’ a central group is the Women’s Institute – a sort of service club like Rotary. These women stepped up. They canned jams and took other actions to deal with food shortage; they created a bomb shelter in one of the manors; they recruited volunteers to harvest crops when there was a shortage of labor, and they welcomed 3,000 Czech soldiers stuck in their community.
They were bold. They acted. And they did so in relationship with one another. Their efforts crossed the generations and economic class. They were newly married, young widows, caregivers, and pillars of the community. They were – yes back in 1940 – gay and straight. Each with own sense of risks, worries, they took next steps as a community. New forms of order and ingenuity arose in the midst of chaos. They found places to laugh, and, yes, the local side dramas continued.
Beyond problem solving, possibility can be about restoring hope in uncertain times. Can we imagine the intensity of the current challenges will lessen? Do we believe it is possible light will again shine through the darkness?
History and story remind us that there will be a path, and reminds us we are not the first, and won’t be the last, to weather layers of adversity.
In the Hebrew Bible, Israel had weathered a long period of distress with the people in exile when Isaiah gave voice to the needs of the discouraged. With their sense of possibility squashed, the prophet wrote this message of reassurance:
Isaiah 40:28-31 (NRSV)
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
Weary. Weary is a word that seems to capture where I think we are after 18 months of a pandemic, with the delta variant complicating matters.
Isaiah offers encouragement to hang in there and to trust you have strength from a source that will not grow weary.
What caught my ear in this passage is the phrase, ‘they shall mount up with wings like eagles’…an implication that those who hung in with faith would take on the traits of eagles. “Eagle’s wings” – offering the image of eagles soaring in patterns about clouds and finding safety. A finding of renewed confidence by zooming out far enough to see a wider picture.
At this widest vantage point, might we see where patience is most needed? Might we make connections as we see the forest as a whole? Might we see opportunities for connection?
How do we, as UUs in 2021, do our version of “mounting up with wings like eagles’’?
What are the questions that release us from feeling stuck in the 24/7 swirl of dispiriting information? How might we feel saved from a sense of being pulled in to the abyss?
There is power in stepping back. While “Look on the bright side” feels a bit like fighting words at about this point in pandemic life, I do sense that as we step back we loosen our resistance to uncertainty and we may grow in unplanned ways.
This growth so often is tied to the power in relationship; a sense of what can be done together that can’t be done alone. There are those times when we’ve been at our best times these last 18 months – times we could feel compassion. Maybe something similar to what those in small communities in England experienced in 1940 – connection in the midst of profound uncertainty.
Consider these words from author Margaret Wheatley:
A reading called ‘Turning to One Another’
There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about. Ask “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.
Notice what you care about.
Assume that many others share your dreams.
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know. Real listening always brings people closer together. Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world. Rely on human goodness. Stay together.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty. Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Maybe for UUs this is close to ‘mounting up with wings like eagles’… this focus on intentional relationship and the inspiration that comes from sharing dreams…the belief that through the contributions of many we find not only solutions, but we will find courage to turn toward hope.
May It Be So