as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, online service, December 6, 2020
Our theme for this month is fire. It concludes our four-month cycle through the ancient elements of Water, Earth, Air, and Fire. It has been our hope that invoking these metaphorically elements might help you center yourselves during this time of isolation and disconnection. No matter how far apart we are, the elements connect us each to the other, those who have gone before, and those who will come after. The water cycle links me to you and to the vast ocean, the Great Lakes, the rivers, and the gathering storm clouds. Water flows through my veins just as it courses down rocky mountain slopes.
You and I are residents upon the same Earth. We come from it. We return to it. And we spend some time on it in-between–terrestrial beings comprised of the celestial dust of a long-extinguished star.
We, star children, take in breath, exhale breath, and share the fragile air of our planet. This blue marble, oxygen rich, gives us spirit, a word derived from the Latin spiritus, to breath–our breaths are our spirits, the air that moves through us is us, when breathing stops so we do. This air I breath now may sometime travel through you. It links me to the great forests of the world: gnarled live oaks and expansive aquatic undulating kelp.
We, nodes in the water cycle, residents upon Earth, creatures animated by a common spirit, have come to our final element: fire. Fire is perhaps the oldest symbol for the divine. God appears as fire in many scriptures. In the Hebrew Bible God is a burning bush and a pillar of fire. God consumes through the temple fire–a fire that the ancient priests were enjoined to never let burn out.
This tradition is by no means unique to the ancient people of Israel. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world. Tending to temple fires is one of its core practices. In a Zoroastrian holy place in India, a flame has burned continuously for over a thousand years. In pagan Rome the sacred fire of Vesta was maintained for almost that long before a Christian emperor ordered it extinguished.
Many of the winter holidays can be understood as days of sacred fire. Throughout Hanukkah the menorah is lit, and the candles burn, a reminder of a miracle wrought by the divine. There are advent wreaths, Christmas lights, and Yule logs. Their kindling a form of keeping watch for the turning or the year or the arrival of the holy or even the eternal reign of peace.
“So keep the log ablaze, but hearken while you wait; / Soft falls the step of Peace amid the bombs of hate,” enjoined the poet Mary Wrinn.
Keep the log ablaze, but hearken while you wait… it is good advice for these times. We are in a time of waiting. We wait not just for the turning of the year, the lengthening of the days, the advent of Christmas, or the New Year, we wait for the end of the pandemic.
Finally, it appears. Not now, not immediately, but in time that can be imagined as soon. Multiple vaccines have been developed. One is being deployed in the United Kingdom. Others will soon begin to be distributed here in the United States. The wait will be short for some–medical professionals are supposed to start receiving it before the end of the year–and longer for others.
Whether the wait is going to be short or long for you, we will all be waiting several more months before life returns to something like it was during the before times. There is still much difficulty ahead: months of physical distancing, mask wearing, and isolation; months of fear; and months of feeling overwhelmed.
Knowing this makes waiting challenging. I do not know about you but I have found 2020 to be by turns tumultuous, and terrifying. The losses have been numbing, unreal. On Friday alone more than 2,500 people died from the novel coronavirus in the United States. That is almost as many people as died on September 11th. To date, the virus has claimed at least 280,000 lives in this country. By the end of this week more of the nation’s residents will have succumb from COVID than there were US soldiers who were slain during World War II.
Against this steady background of death, there has been economic calamity, disruption, and political vitriol. Commentators have gone so far to claim that the recent presidential election was so traumatic that it constituted a near death experience. The rich have gotten much much richer while many families struggle to remain in their homes, get enough to eat, and stay safe while the pandemic rages. Here in Greg Abbott’s Texas, the political class does little to address these calamities. Nationally, the do-nothing Senate–managed by the obstinate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell–is refusing to pass an aid bill that will provide direct relief to the majority of families or provide funding to struggling state and local governments.
Now, I do not know about you, but I have found all of this more than a little exhausting. Between single parenting, my son’s online schooling, the strange adjustments we have had to make to congregational life, and, well, everything, I find myself exceptionally eager to see the backside of 2020, welcome the New Year, get vaccinated, and return to a life that in some way resembles life before the pandemic. I am sure you know what I mean: a life where going out to a restaurant did not involve a potentially lethal encounter; a life that does not require regular mask wearing; a life in which getting on an airplane is not a gamble; a life that includes indoor dinner parties, trips to the theater, in-person schooling, choir concerts, and, well, something like the life that was.
We are not there yet. And if you are, or I am, going to get there then we are going to need to continue to take precautions for some time to come. I do not imagine we will be able to safely reopen for services until July. And so, we are in a time of waiting.
During this difficult period of waiting, we have arrived, as certain as the Earth continues its dance around the sun, at the winter holidays. Well, actually, we have arrived at the period right before the winter holidays. This is the Sunday before the start of Hanukkah. We are two and a half weeks prior the solstice, three weeks preceding Christmas, and four weeks ahead of the New Years.
We are in a time of advent within a period of advent. We wait for the holidays to truly commence. We wait for the vaccine. During such a period of protracted waiting it can be difficult to tend to the sacred fire of our connection to the divine or to each other. That is, I suspect, especially true now. The holidays this year will be unlike any other holidays we have known. Most of us will stay close to home and gather with either the members of our immediate household or a small handful of others.
It is a good time to think about fire. December is the month when the light is the lowest. It is when, even here in Texas, we are most likely to need fire in our own lives. Personally, I have found myself burning a lot of candles. Wicks fueled by wax sputtering in my apartment as the nights grow ever longer.
Fire can warm us. Fire can cheer us. Fire reminds us of the sacred. The divine has been imagined as consuming flesh through flame. The divine has been thought to purify with a blaze.
Fire, like our connection to the divine, needs to be nurtured, needs to be maintained, if it is to continue. This is a helpful lesson to remember during these difficult days. For it prompts the question: In these times when it can feel like the fires of our spirits flag, what shall we do to maintain them?
And that question should come with the reminder, maintaining the fire of our connection to the divine, the flame of our spirits, is not something that happens on its own. It is something that requires effort.
Anyone who has built a fire will probably know this. I have lit numerous fires in my years: fires in fireplaces, well shielded by a hearth; fires under the pin pricked stellar dark; fires fogged by drizzling grey; fires on sand, banked by rock, or captivated by clay.
If you have ever stoked a fire, then you probably know that fires have two easy destinies. They can either smolder out when they consume all of their fuel or, more rarely, than can escape their bounds and blaze uncontrollably. It is far more difficult to maintain the fire so that it continues evenly–offers a signal throughout the night or warms the hearth against the cold.
I suspect that the ancient priests in Leviticus and the pre-Christian Romans sought to maintain their fires indefinitely because they understood that controlling fire is one of the things that has made us human. No other living species lights and then manages fire. The naturalist Loren Eisley once made this point, writing about the moment when our ancestors “lit the fires… that made them” human.
In Greek mythology, fire is a gift stolen from the gods by Prometheus and given to us so that we might create civilization. This act placed humanity a little too close to the divine. For it, Prometheus was punished with eternal torment. But humanity retained fire.
That retention allowed us to shape metal, transmute iron and coal into steel, cook our food, dye our clothes, power internal combustion engines… It did not make us gods, but it did give us unprecedented power–power that the climate emergency suggests we have often used unwisely–to shape planetary life.
The sacred fire of the Zoroastrians is understood to have burned eternally. And the fire of human culture has burned in much the same way. This fire or that fire may die but fire itself has always been rekindled.
Like fire, our connection to the divine, to the spirit that sustains us, needs to be maintained. Sometimes it is in danger of going out. And sometimes it must be rekindled. I titled this sermon “Stirring the Embers” because I suspect that this is a time when many of the fires of our inner spirits burn low–have maybe even reduced to the barest glowing coal under a collapsing pile of charcoal and ash.
And I titled this sermon “Stirring the Embers” as a reminder that like fire, our lives can be brought back to a blaze as long as some small cinder remains.
That is where I find myself now, at the start of the winter holidays, in these times, in the midst of one advent–the waiting for the turning of the year–caught in another–hoping for the distribution of a vaccine. What about you? How brightly does your sacred fire blaze? What are you doing to maintain it? To stoke it? How might you nurture it during this time of advent?
For my part, I have found some comfort, some connection, through maintaining some traditions and letting go of others. I have made eggnog and set-up an advent calendar. When Hanukkah arrives my son and I will kindle the menorah and fry latkes. Instead, I find myself wanting to take something of conservative turn. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott claimed that conservatism was best understood as a disposition. It “is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”
Oakeshott’s formulation is problematic when applied to the political and he appears to unnecessarily create an existential distinction between savoring the present and preparing for the future. Nonetheless, I find myself trying to blow upon the embers of my own spirit and turning to those parts of the familiar that I can discover as still obtainable within the present disruption. I spend as much time visiting the classics as reading new texts. The well-worn words of Dostoevsky, Sappho, or James Baldwin are offering me as much wisdom as that found in the works of thoughtful contemporaries. My palette seems to have contracted as well. Favorite foods from a childhood spent partially in England beckon me far more than innovation. Oh, the puddings I have made! And yet, here too I find myself longing more for the familiar than the novel–a preference of Lyle’s Golden Syrup in treacle pudding over the Southern standard of Steen’s Pure Cane Syrup. Have you found the same to be true? That in this time of uncertainties there is comfort in the certain?
I cannot tell you how to stir your spiritual embers in these times. You might find it best to resort to the firelight, as the poet Polly Chase did during her own period of waiting. For her, the flame became an aid to memory, the dying of fire an opportunity to linger:
When firelight glow fades from my face,
Leave me–I shall not mind.
As the last ember falls, I’ll trace
Your shadow on the blind.
You may discover it in the familiar, in the routine, my greatest source of internal stability during this epoch of illness has been my regular spiritual practice. No matter the funk I feel, and the funk I often feel is not Clintonian, I have found that processing this calamitous world around me through my journal is a consistent source of calm. You might also find it in the novel: pursuing a new way of being.
Either way, I can only encourage like this: stir your ember, kindle your flame, for we are in a waiting time, a time of advent. The days might be difficult and the hours dour. But lo, on the horizon, the turning of the year, the ending of the pandemic. It might not be here today or tomorrow but it will arrive. And when it does… and when it does… oh, glorious day when the fires of our spirits shall again blaze!
Until then, my friends, absent in body but present in spirit, I offer you this advent prayer:
Oh spirit of life,
that we might imagine
as the sacred flame
that burns eternal
and sparks within each of us,
or call the force of human culture
that transmutes matter,
and develops vaccines,
stir within each of us
a little stronger every day
making it through these days,
as best we can,
how to nurture the embers of our spirits
when they burn low,
this time of turmoil
and we be able to gather again.
That it might be so,
encouraging you to wear a mask,
keep your social distance,
and do what you can to sustain yourself,
I invite the congregation
to say Amen.