as preached for the January 24, 2021 online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston
Something rather momentous occurred since I was last with you. The United States has a new President and a new Vice President. A man with almost five decades of experience in government is now the country’s chief executive. A woman is now in the nation’s second highest office. The new cabinet is racially diverse and will include an unprecedented number of women. And the new administration has a radically different approach to the pandemic than the previous one. Anthony Fauci said that in one of his initial meetings with the President he was told, “Everything we do is going to be based on science and truth and if things go wrong and we make mistakes, we admit them and we try and fix them.”
What a refreshing approach! I do not doubt that the new administration will feed us some untruths and distort bits of information to suit its agenda. Not only politicians, but people in general always do that. But there is a big difference between the ordinary wiles of governance and the brazen mendaciousness we have been subjected to over the last four years. The former President is such a liar that misinformation on Twitter has declined by 73 percent since he has been removed from the platform.
I want to pause here for a moment to observe something. If we were together in this sanctuary, I would have gotten applause for at least three of the lines thus far in sermon. And someone might have even said, “Amen” to that observation. So, I want to give you a chance to applaud at home. I am going to repeat the earlier lines and then after I repeat each one, I am going to say “applause.” At that point, I invite you to do just that and clap your hands, stomp your feet, cheer, do whatever it is that you like to do during a service when you hear something that you really appreciate. Ava, Christian, Scott, Tawanna, maybe you could try to applaud too so that people watching this video can feel like they’re a part of congregation of people clapping for a bit of the service they appreciate.
The United States has a new President and a new Vice President, applause.
“Everything we do is going to be based on science and truth and if things go wrong and we make mistakes, we admit them and we try and fix them,” applause.
The former President is such a liar that misinformation on Twitter has declined by 73 percent since he has been removed from the platform, applause.
How did that feel? Good? Silly? A little artificial?
It ties directly into the subject of this service. We are going to talk about the struggles with savoring our experience of the world around us that many of us are faced with during this era of pandemic. If we are heeding the science then so much of what we are experiencing of the world right now comes through our screens. And for me, and I anticipate for most of us, that makes it a little hard to fully engage with what Robert Richardson, Jr. has described as the Emersonian “craving for direct, personal, unmediated experience.”
The title of this service is “the resurrection of the living.” I have spoken of it in the past. My understanding of it is inspired by a line in the gnostic Christian text “The Treatise on the Resurrection.” There we find this answer to the query, “What is the resurrection?” “It is truth standing firm. It is revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into freshness.”
Truth, transformation, the revelation of what is, a transition into freshness, the resurrection of the living is that teaching, that wisdom, found in so many of the world’s religions that tells us that the purpose of life is to open ourselves to the glory, the beauty, the wonder around us. It is the Buddha’s answer to question, “Are you a god?” with the words “I am awake.” It is Jesus’s teaching, “God is not God of the dead but of the living.” It is Jewish theologian Martin Buber’s claim, “All actual life is encounter.” It is the Hindu poet Mirabai’s enjoinment, “Get up, stop sleeping–the days of a life are short.” It is the Sioux scholar Nick Estes’s observation, “the moral universe is how one relates to others and to the land.” It is…
Well, our Unitarian Universalist Association describes it as, “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”
I have to admit that in recent months I have really struggled to embrace the experience of transcending mystery and wonder that is available to each of us. The unrelenting onslaught of the pandemic has left me feeling more flat and foggy than awake. Do you know what I am talking about? There is a certain smallness and sameness to my world these days.
It is like this: The day starts. My cat greets me with his aggressive purring. I read for a moment and then groggily put on some clothes and roll my bicycle out the door. I ride for about thirty minutes–I like to bike through a neighborhood with aged live oaks arching the streets and draped with moss–and then it is back home. The kettle is on for tea. I wake up my son, shower, make breakfast–usually toast and some fruit from the farmers market–and then get in front of my computer and start work. It is a mixture of video calls, writing, and email until lunchtime. There are leftovers if I have got them. Otherwise, it is either a salad or tinned fish with radishes, crackers, and maybe something pickled on the side. And then… it is back to the computer with its mixture of video calls, writing and email. That ends and then it is time to make dinner and help my son with his homework. Maybe there is something special to eat–I have some fresh nopales that I got recently which I am planning to serve in mole enchiladas–but often it is just some pretty standard fare: pasta, tacos, or the like. Along the way I normally listen to the news or the BBC–I favor NPR, DemocracyNow, and droll British comedy–and afterwards my son and I typically watch a bit of television. At some point, there are more chores to do: fold the laundry, tidy the kitchen, clean the bathroom, empty the cat litter, sweep the floor… By the time it is all over I am pretty much exhausted. Maybe I read for ten or twenty minutes before bed but by that point I can barely keep my eyes open. Maybe the cat comes for an evening visit. Then the day repeats itself.
Sure, there are slight variations but even these feel routine. I mean, there’s the day that I come to the Museum District campus to record the sermon and the delightful evening when my lady friend comes by for dinner. But these ruptures are rarely enough to entirely puncture the persistent rhythm of that haunts the rest of my waking. Even the inauguration of a new President seemed to fall into the constant pattern. I did not toast it with friends. I did not go to a party. It came over the screen, as everything else does.
What about you? Does what I am describing sound familiar. I know that many of my family members and friends, as well as many of you, report similar experiences. It can be quite difficult to find the mystery and wonder in a life that feels filled with flatness or endless repetition. The poet Morgan Parker describes a bit of what it is like to live this way in her poem “If You Are Over Staying Woke”:
the plants. Drink
plenty of water.
the news. Get
about the weather.
Keep a corkscrew
in your purse.
unless you want
to. Sleep in.
Yet this is the world we must wake up to. Actually, I am going to say, this is the world that I must wake up to. It is a truism among preachers that preachers often preach the sermon that they need to hear. The sermon I need to hear is: How to experience, “the revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into freshness,” in a time of pandemic. It is: How to undergo the resurrection of the living when there is a certain stuckness to the world.
There is a lot of spiritual teaching that offers advice on how to proceed at such a time. The Buddhist and Jewish traditions in particular have various practices meant to wake us up from the sleep of daily monotony. Thich Nhat Hanh has written a number of lovely books as encouragement along these lines. In them there are instructions like this one which meant to help attune the practitioner to the “peace and joy of the body:”
Aware of the hair on my head,
I breathe in.
Smiling to the hair on my head,
I breathe out.
Aware of my eyes, I breathe in.
Smiling to my eyes, I breathe out.
Aware of my ears, I breathe in.
Smiling to my ears, I breathe out.
Aware of my teeth, I breathe in.
Smiling to my teeth, I breathe out.
Aware of smile, I breathe in.
Smiling to my smile, I breathe out.
Nhat Hahn continues the meditation for nine another verses. He invites the reciter to smile to their shoulders, arms, lungs, heart, liver, bowels, kidneys, feet, and toes. The entire point of the exercise is to help us wake up to the body we inhabit and to treat our body as a blessing. Nowhere in the meditation is the aspiration that we might have a different body than the one we inhabit. He is urging me to smile to my hair–however long and disheveled–and to my eyes–as myopic as they are–and my teeth–broken by youthful violence though they be. He is urging you to embrace your body with its imperfections in the same way.
It is a meditation to embrace what is, which is another way of saying, it is a meditation that is meant to reveal what is. It is the sort of thing that helps me undergo the resurrection of the living, to experience a transition into freshness. And I confess, that reciting it while I was preparing this sermon and reciting it just now has left me feeling a little more open to the mystery and wonder around me and of which I am a part.
There is a basic pleasure, a small deliciousness, available in each breath. The air comes into my nose. It offers a slight tingle as my lungs expand. There is a satisfaction to be had when I push air out. If I was a scientist, I might explain to you the complicated splendor of it all–the way in which blood colors when filled with or lacking oxygen, the majesty of the respiratory system, and the connection between consciousness, inspiration (intake), and expiration (exhale).
The focus on breath during this time of horrors can make me meditate on the difficulty of the hour. The novel coronavirus is a respiratory virus. Many people who die from it suffocate. To speak of breath right now is to speak of something that in this exact moment several people are struggling to do. Some will fail in their efforts and succumb to the virus.
It is painful to open ourselves to this truth. It is painful but it is good too because it allows us to be honest about the stakes we face and who we are. Those of us who survive the pandemic will carry with us the memories of those who do not. As the President said, “To heal, we must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal.”
The lesson, the pandemic lesson, the one that I always need to remind myself of is that whatever I am experiencing at any given time is the fullness of my experience at that time. It might be an experience of memory, remembering those who we have lost. It might be an experience of just pure experience. I can open myself to its mystery and wonder. I can close myself to it. But it is what there is or, alternatively, to quote the classic cult film “Buckaroo Bonzai,” “No matter where you go, there you are.”
Mystery and wonder, I might remind you, does not necessarily equate with joy and ecstasy. Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of our foremost Unitarian theologians. He did not teach that we should open ourselves only to joy and close off everything else. Instead, he taught that we should open ourselves to the all that is–the joy, the sorrow, the pain, the pleasure–and in that we might we find connection with the divine. He even sought to open the caskets of his first wife and favorite son so that he could experience the fullness of their deaths.
The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel taught the purpose of the sabbath was to intentionally set aside time each week so that we might give ourselves over to the full experience of being. He believed “time is the heart of existence” and felt that the purpose of life was to “face sacred moments.”
The sabbath comes once a week, every week. It is an opportunity to experience “the climax of living.” The stuckness of the week, this never-ending routine week, this week of the pandemic is made better by setting aside time each week for the sacredness of living. I realize now that however tedious and repetitious the time of the pandemic might seem there are intervals within it where I can embrace the eternal now.
This requires nothing special. It only requires that I set aside some time for rest. This might be very difficult amid the demands of pandemic working and parenting but it is still possible. Actually, I will remind myself to do it today. When I get home I will not immediately give myself over to the seemingly unending task of helping my son with his online schooling or keeping the house clean. I will take time to just be and appreciate some time–pet the cat, lie on the couch, enjoy my tea, light a candle–and after I have done that, after I have done that I will be refreshed, maybe only a little refreshed but refreshed nonetheless, and a little more able to open myself to mystery and wonder. I suggest that you try the same thing.
If you do you might even find yourself a caught up a bit in the mystery and wonder. There is an experience I sometimes have when I can truly place myself in the complete present: the infinitude, the eternity of now, subsumes me. I sit there. Or I lie there. My eyes are closed. Or my eyes are open. And I find myself a drifting in the vastness of the world. Time appears, as it really is, without beginning or ending, just something that is. And I am in it. And you are in it. And everything is in it. It goes on forever and forever and forever and forever. It contains vast nebula, dying stars, decomposing asphalt, grey blue freckled crawfish, vining fiery orange nasturtium, and you and you and me.
Savor each breath, set aside time to just rest, I have reminded myself of these easy practices, these opportunities for the resurrection of the living, so that I might come unstuck and that the pandemic routine might feel less routine. And I have to tell you, that after having written these words, and preached them to you, I feel less stuck. Have they helped you as well? That is my hope.
I cannot see your faces through the screen. Nor can I know whether sharing this time with you has helped you mark it as sacred, has helped you to wake up to the resurrection of the living. That is for you to experience.
As for myself, I have been present for this sermon. And as I have, I have reminded myself that there is much mystery and wonder in the present. Direct experience, the resurrection of the living, is here all the time. We only need to turn ourselves to it. I pray that my words might have thus helped you.
Amen and Blessed Be.