Finishing the Quilt
I don't know about you but sometimes it feels to me like the world is incredibly screwed up.
I am aware that may not be the most inspiring first line ever offered in a sermon, but it's where I need to start this morning. I'm not feeling depressed or particularly morose, but when I read the news, listen, against my better judgment to talk radio, read bumper stickers saying “illegal alien hunting permit” or “either stand behind our troops or stand in front of them,” see more reports of humanity's inhumanity---when I see all this I start to feel more than a bit of despair and a fair amount of paralysis. I begin to feel overwhelmed by all the challenges and problems and hatred and ignorance and shortsightedness and deception and greed and destruction and and and I'm back to not being inspiring. I just wonder how one leaves this life feeling like they've accomplished anything given how short our time is and how limited our strength and influence is. It feels like so much gets left undone. I met a patient at the hospital recently, let's call her Sarah, who was reaching end-of-life. We spoke a number of times, at some length. Sarah said at various points how much she regretted that she would never get a chance to finish the quilt she was working on. She brought this up several times across our conversations and at first I just didn't get it, but now I think I might. Anyway, you get the picture. The problems of our lives, let alone the world can seem so overwhelming, so difficult to make any real impact on. I don't think I'm alone here, right. When you read the news, look around the world, it seems dramatically, perhaps irretrievably screwed up, right? Can I get a solid Universalist amen or even a nice quiet Unitarian show of hands?
Several weeks ago we had a really wonderful Sunday service led by Bob Nemanich. The entire service focused on the impact music has upon our lives and the morning was embroidered with wonderful songs. As I sat where you sit now, I listened and sang along to a couple of my favorite songs. The first was Dust in the Wind by Kansas which, as the title implies, speaks to the incredible transience of our lives. “Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind”--so goes the famous rock anthem. I've always loved the song and the quiet, melancholy simplicity of it still appeals to me. It echoes the sentiments of so many of the world's sacred scriptures. Whether it be the Book of Ecclesiastes or the Buddhist idea of Anicca or impermanence, spiritual paths throughout human history have reminded us about our limited nature—limited by strength, resources, distance, and, of course, most powerfully, we are all, paupers and princes alike, limited by time. The author of Ecclesiastes writes “vanity of vanities, all is vanity. The Hebrew word central here is hebel which means transient, insubstantial. That is to say, “all we are is dust in the wind.”
It doesn't take much to remind us how small we are. Carl Sagan's wonderful passage reminds me how very small I am and short my life is. Each of us is the barest piece of dust in the universe. Our lives, indeed dozens upon dozens of generations, flit by in less than a blink of the galaxy's eye. Not that this awareness is without its own gifts. There is a certain peace in remembering that so many of things we worry about, the day to day conflicts and chaos, the spikes and troughs of daily life, mostly smooth out from the perspective of a 100 years out. Sometimes it can help to take a deep breath, relax, and ask what will this really mean a year or 10 or 50 or a 100 years out. But still, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the weight of history and culture. So few make an actual difference, so many live “lives of quiet desperation.”
But I, we, are not alone in our fears and doubts. Indeed we are in good company, others have gone before us and felt daunted by the enormity of their problems. The feeling of being too small is part of the hero's journey, part of our journey.
Arjuna, the hero of the Hindu epic poem, the Bhagavad-Gita found himself in a such a situation. Just before a huge battle between two sides of his family, Arjuna directs his charioteer, the god Krishna, to drive his chariot onto the battle field between the gathering armies. He looks out and his courage fails, he loses sight of his reason for acting. The rest of the poem is Krishna's instruction, assurance and encouragement to Arjuna to act in the world despite his doubts. Krishna comes to see all his action as an offering to God thus letting go of ego and attachment to outcomes.
Moses also faced such difficulties. Minding his own business, tending his sheep, he sees a burning bush. God speaks to him and calls him to be his emissary in freeing the Jews from bondage in Egypt. Moses takes a lot of convincing—who am I to do this, what if they don't believe me, what if they don't listen to me, I'm a lousy public speaker, what did you say your name was again? God convinces him to speak to pharoah and overall, apart from the plagues and Red Sea business, everything turned out OK.
Although the details of the two stories differ, both point to an individual struggling to act in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. These stories are too significant to take literally, but once we see them metaphorically, as archetypes for our own lives, then we can truly appreciate their importance. Every heroine or hero in the great myths represents us, each of us in our struggles. There is story after story of prophets and seers, heroes and heroines, all facing the fear that they are not enough, that they do not have the strength, resources, or abilities to carry the message or accomplish the task.
“Dust in the Wind” was only the first of the songs that really sang to me that morning. The other was Melissa Etheridge's “I need to wake up” written for Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. The song speaks to the individual awakening to the problems that need work, now. I find the song a powerful and inspiring call to action against an enormous challenge---one that will require us to remake our culture in an effort to avoid remaking the global climate. And even though the song was written specifically for the movie and the threat posed by greenhouse gases, it also simply speaks to an awakening of one's consciousness to the need for action on any front—hunger, justice, equal rights.
The two songs feel so at odds with each other. One reminds me how small I am, a mere mote of dust on a tiny ball floating through an enormous galaxy in an even-larger universe. My years are limited and even I, at 39, may well not have as many years ahead as are behind. While the other seems to cast that off or at least reframe it, to remind us that we not only should act, but must act when we see problems that need our help no matter how small that aid may be.
Some religious traditions might actual confirm me in my fears---I am too small to help, I am too warped by original sin to even know what The Good is, I am powerless in the face of evil. I reject that absolutely.
I have wandered through several spiritual paths as have many of us here. But whether I identified as a Jew, a Christian, or a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist as I am now, there is one belief that has always been a part of my spirituality: what good happens on this earth happens by the hands such as these. Whatever role God or Spirit may play, we can never wait for a transcendental rescue. God may inspire, Spirit may guide, but we must act.
I don't care what you do. I don't care if you are republican or democrat or neither, liberal or conservative or beyond labels. I don't care what you get fired up about: climate change, poverty, illiteracy, gay rights, animal rights, abortion, choice, xeriscaping, supporting the troops, protesting the war, any war, all war, freedom of religion or freedom from religion. All I care is that you care enough to move, to get up, to stand up, to speak out, to find an injustice that causes you pain enough to change your own life. Unitarian Universalists have been called free-thinking mystics with hands—the first part is wonderful, it's great to be free-thinking, great to be mystically inclined, but its all crap without being a presence in the world. Most of our beloved forebears, those we claim with such pride were not thinkers or not merely thinkers. They acted in the world. Even Thoreau, a fairly thoughtful fellow, went to the woods—he just didn't sit in his living room in Concord. Some may say that he didn't go far. Walden Pond is indeed a short distance from town, but that's the point not the problem. You don't have to go far to change yourself or the world around you. It is by small, almost unnoticeable movements that some of the most worthwhile changes happen. Inflate your tires, use fluorescents, plant a garden, email a city council person, skip coffee for one week and give that money to the food bank. One doesn't, as the old saying goes, eat an elephant all at once. You do it one bite at a time.
I doubt anyone came here this morning to secure a place in heaven. I don't think most of you come back to this church week after week, year after year, because you are afraid of hell. I don't believe that you are worried about salvation. But you should be. You should worry about how you will be saved. Not by anything you were told in any church, temple, mosque you've been in before. Not by God, Jesus, Krishna, Shiva, or any of a thousand other divinities. Other faiths will condemn you for your thoughts and feelings, but I say to you it is not in our thoughts and feelings that we are damned no matter if they are the thoughts of a Gandhi or a Hitler, what matters is action. Has anyone in this room never wished harm upon someone else?—I certainly have—everything from a speeding ticket to death. It is not good to hate, but action is what turns emotion into evil. I feel sorry for you if your heart and mind burn with hatred of Jews, Gays, Blacks, Whites, Women, Children, Christians, Muslims, Unitarians, anyone. If that malice is what fills you, I feel sorry for you, but I fear you if you act. That man in Tennessee could have hated liberals like me from today to eternity, but had he not acted, he could have lived his life that way—only wasting his own life and not that of our fellow believers. I know this simplifies the relationship between action and thought. How we think colors all of our actions and who we are at a deep level, our inmost thoughts and feelings, speak in every choice and movement we make. My point however is that no matter our worst or, perhaps more importantly, despite our best intentions, what actually matters is acting on those convictions. It is horrible to see someone starving, but until you transform the inward to the outward, all you offer is pity not help.
But we were talking about salvation. I don't believe that salvation is a simple matter of belief, not that belief is all that simple. I've certainly never mastered it. I think salvation is a matter of action. I say again, you should be worried about the state of your soul, you should be worried about your salvation, but I can offer you no salvation... apart from this—that as you act in the outer world so will you change your inner world. I do not believe that you can give and not receive, offer love and not be loved, change and not be changed, save a life and not be saved. I do not know for sure what kind of eternal reward there may be, if any, but some part of me says that if t here is someone or something that sits in judgment I feel certain that I better have more than a lifetime of good intentions. But again we come back to good humanism and, indeed, good traditional Unitarianism. One of the tensions between the Unitarians and the Universalists was the concern that the Universalist focus on transcendental salvation might take the focus off the Unitarian goal of transforming and perfecting this world, right here right now. But both traditions I believe could share in a sense of the word salvation that has roots that go back to sense of health, and that's what I'm talking about here. Salvation not as a theological proposition but as a measure of the health of our spirits. Action aimed at improving the world is aerobic exercise for the part of us that isn't physical.
It is because we are small that we must act simply because no one is any bigger. Never let the size of our contribution keep us from making it. And isn't that what faith is. The belief that the acorn can grow into the oak, that the trickle of water will cut the grand canyon, that small acts of conscious compassion can feed the hungry, mend the broken, and heal our planet.
Of course action can be subtle. We often act without knowing the effect. Anyone who has ever taught anything has likely had an impact that will never fully be known. Here again we see the deeper more complex relationship between thought, attitude and action. Embrace your highest ideals deeply and fully, wonderful ideals like our principles, and you will touch lives in ways you will never know.
I want to return to the dying patient I mentioned at the beginning. She was so concerned about not finishing the quilt she'd been working on for years. I wasn't quite sure what to say to that and so I did what any good chaplain would do, I kept my mouth shut and just held her hand. Eventually broke the silence and said she never felt she had known what her purpose here on earth was and wasn't sure she had ever made a difference. But then a young student nurse came in. Her shift was over and she would be moving on to a different unit the next day and so would not see the patient again. Sarah took the young nurse's hand and thanked her for the wonderful care and for sitting with her when she had been scared. The nurse and the patient teared up and just held hands for a while, looking into each other's eyes. It was clear that these two human beings had formed a profound bond. I watched the student nurse's face as she said good-bye clearly knowing that she was saying goodbye forever.
When Sarah and I were alone, I suggested that maybe she had just accomplished a part of her purpose. I told her that I could see how profoundly touched that young nurse was and I could tell she would remember Sarah for the rest of her career. Through who she was, even through her disease and death, she had touched this young woman's life forever and inspired her to a life of service and helping others. Then we spoke about how maybe none of us ever “finishes our quilt.” Maybe the quilts of our lives are only finished by those we love and touch and help and heal. Maybe this is the balance and the mystery. We must act despite or even because of how small our lives are, we must know that we will never know all the ways we touch others, we must trust that those connected to us by invisible threads of love are the ones who in turn help us complete our lives, placing them in a deeper wider context that the threescore and twenty years we have, and we must have faith that although little makes sense or perhaps even seems to change from the limited perspective we have, that we are all a part of a greater movement, that we all all contribute to the on-going story of humanity, the each of us is an essential thread in finishing the quilt.
This is one of the great aims of religion. Religion helps us embed ourselves in a quilt of meaning that has threads that runs from the far past, bold threads of figures that are models, archetypes for our own journeys. The old traditional stories often don't work for us, it's one of the reasons many of us found our way to Unitarian Universalism. And yet, when we turn back to those myths, those of Arjuna and Krishna, Moses and Jesus, Coyote and Crow, when we turn back and take them seriously enough not to take them literally they can unlock worlds of meaning, reveal the finely interwoven threads of our lives, and help us to wrap ourselves in a quilt lovingly constructed—not a quilt that hides us from reality, but one that helps us stride forward in brave ways knowing we are connected and have a role to play no matter how brief the scene.
Amen, Namaste, and Blessed be.