16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Finding Meaning VS Getting Through
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 11/06/2005
In one of the recent TV adventures, that I loathe to admit I ended up watching the other night, a group of airline crash survivors who have crashed on an jungle island end up discovering that deep in the island's core is a scientific center of some kind. In the strange uncovering of this dark mystery, the show's two main protagonists are told by a somewhat crazy survivor of some earlier plane crash that every 108 minutes they must enter a secret code into a computer to prevent some catastrophe from befalling not just the island, but perhaps the world. They will "save the world" they are told by following this ritual on time, exactly as prescribed with no questioning.
The star of the show, who we are led to believe is very smart because he's a doctor, doesn't believe this myth and refuses to enter the code. The co-star, whom we're led to believe has a lot of psychological problems because his parents gave him up at birth and renounced him again later, believes somehow that he and his friend have been led to this mission. That they in fact, must inherit this task but must also believe in the task and do it together. That they are going to be the saviors of the world- together. In fact, this emotional man says at the climax of the show, "We must take this leap of faith. Together, we can make a difference for the world." Or something equally as dramatic as that. We also know that this is what was told to this man by the woman who loved this man and who saved him somehow from his own fear of life and his obsession with his abandonment. This plea comes from his deep belief stemming from a prior experience that working together with intention and sincerity will save you.
The protagonist, in response to this emotional plea, overcomes his "lack of faith" and enters the life-saving code that will prevent everything, maybe even the world from being blown sky-high.
Well, as you might imagine we, the TV audience, all breathe a sigh of collective relief as the computer warning signals turn off and all is well, at least for the next 108 minutes.
There's something about a life and death event that often brings out in us the ability to believe in something. The need to believe in something. And the overwhelming propensity to have others around us who will together heal the pain that we are feeling. And there is something very powerful in this communal ability to overcome difficulty. Sometimes we look for the solution to our pain in others. Sometimes we look within ourselves. And sometimes we look for the truth and meaning within our situation to the universe. To some ultimate truth that will save us. Will comfort us in our need. Something that will heal our pain.
We have heard many stories about families and individuals who have overcome unbelievable struggles in the recent disaster of Katrina. I'm sure many of you were glued to your set over that week listening to the horror stories as they mounted. Since then, we've heard many stories about families who have lost everything they had in the storm, and have had others reach out to them allowing them to create new lives in new places.
One story I read told of a family who had stayed behind because of the family dogs and because they had weathered many other storms without incident. They ended up on a roof holding on for their lives. Their mother fell in the water and ended up getting her ribs crushed by debris. But eventually, all of their lives were saved and they have been able to start over with a house that was lent to them for a few months while they put their lives together. Mike said when it was all over, "I did pray the whole time it was going on, when I could. All I could do was just ask that if I have a chance to make it through this, I could do something better with my life. In a weird way for me this is kind of a blessing in a way, because it's a new beginning, even though it's a very rough new beginning."
Mike's considered his prayers to be answered by God. He felt saved and loved in his time of need. And having his prayers answered made him feel that this blessing in his life meant that he could start over and make his life new. Many feel that they must give back to others in response to what they have received.
Many families have lost loved ones, lost their homes, their livelihoods, and some their trust in their government. But many, many stories are told about communities and churches coming together to help put together the kind of care it took to take care for the devastated families. It's often the people who reached out to those going through the worst time who made the difference for people who may have lost all hope.
Forest Church, Unitarian Universalist minister of All Souls Church of New York, writes in his book, Lifecraft, "If our lives have meaning, -or better, meanings- we both discover them and create them. To the extent that we do neither, our lives may indeed by meaningless. This is not true for most of us. Through a process of discovery and creation, meanings emerge, taking shape over time, developing according to experience."
Church also says that meanings often develop by how we deal with life's problems. "Handling life well, whenever we surprise others and ourselves by rising to difficult occasions, we can redeem the darkest day." (p. 11) When we are experiencing our most difficult times in life, sometimes we find the most unsought for understanding about why we are here on this planet doing what we're doing.
When we go through the "dark night of the soul" kind of experience, we search to find meaning in our journey. As Unitarian Universalists, part of our spiritual faith is founded on our need as humans to be in search for this meaning, as opposed to being given a meaning by someone outside of ourselves. While it's very human to want someone, or some book, or some church to hand us the answer to our problem all wrapped up in ribbons and bows- as Unitarian Universalists we would be suspicious of any neat tidy package answer to our problems. The hard, arduous journey of searching for our meaning is a part of our faith. We feel the need to find our own truth and meaning in life- not accept someone else's. But this sometimes makes life seem a lost jungle with no answers, with no real meaning.
It's in those moments of pain, of wonderment and confusion when we start searching the hardest. Fred Muir, a UU minister in Annapolis, writes "Who hasn't had at some point in their living, even for just an instant, known something of this wholeness, symmetry, or oneness? It's a characterization of the holy, of that word G-o-d or others like it that represent truth and meaning in our lives. It seems that even when we've never felt it, or experienced enough of it, still we yearn for it and we turn to religion for direction and support." He goes on to say that part of why we search for religion or wholeness is because we aren't satisfied with our lives the way they are. Our dissatisfaction with life drives us forward into the search for something more meaningful.
When we're comfortable with life, when we have enough to eat, a warm bed, safety for our family, plenty of interesting things to do, and a healthy body- that's often a time when we may feel that there isn't any real meaning in life. Many people later in life once they have accomplished their objectives of career or family, begin to feel uncomfortable about seeing an underlying meaning to their lives. They are beginning to think about the end of their lives, and they wonder what did it all mean? Why were they born into the life they had and what does it all mean? That can also launch for some people a spiritual search for their own truth and meaning in life. But they don't usually find it sitting in front of their televisions or mowing their lawn.
But sometimes we find our search failing miserably and our depression and our loneliness overcomes us. Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King seminary and formerly a Methodist minister, tells her story about when she came to the end of her rope. She had been in a marriage that she thought was fine and was pursuing her career when she got pregnant and shared her happy news with her husband. He was angry. He felt that they could not continue to pursue the career paths they were on with a child interfering. She was shocked and couldn't understand his feelings. Because of his feelings, she went ahead and got an abortion despite her real desire to have the child. She had been taught by her family and her church that she should put her happiness aside for others' happiness and she followed that course to save her marriage. It didn't save her marriage, her husband left her. She was alone with no marriage and no child. She was devastated and could not find comfort from God. She turned her anger and grief against herself and lived in a self imposed isolation and self hatred.
One night she no longer could see the reason for living. All she could feel was that she could give up the struggle, that she could lay down and "return to God" and be comforted in death. She walked down to the water's edge in Seattle. She walked along the beach, intending to just walk into the water and end her life. As she walked further, there was a group of people intruding on her plans as they were gathered around the water's edge, talking excitedly. As she got closer, she saw that they had set up telescopes and were examining the night sky and talking quietly about what they saw. As she approached, one young man saw her coming closer and invited her to look into the telescope. She looked into the telescope and saw a bright red banded planet which the young man told her was Jupiter. "Isn't it great?", he asked her. She had to agree that it was beautiful. The young man's excitement infected her overwhelming depression and desire to die.
She says it wasn't that the group's joy in life trumped her despair. She says it was because she could actually feel her life more, even her sadness and despair as a part of her life. The ordinary unexpected pleasures of life didn't make her sadness meaningless- it made it more poignant- but placed it within the context of human relationship. She was included in the human connectedness once more and that's what saved her, she says. "There is a web of connection we live in that is greater than sense can tell."
She later goes to sleep and dreams of an older woman approaching her and embracing her. The older woman holds her in her pain and tells her that she knows her pain and she is so sorry that she is feeling this. Rebecca realizes that the older woman is herself, her older self coming to visit her, to tell her that she is going to live, that she is going to overcome this pain, and live through it. And she feels loved. Loved by her own presence and a larger loving presence. She says, "I was saved by a restoration of presence, a presence that I had lost, and that was returned to me, by life."
Many who tell of stories like this tell of a feeling of being loved, of being saved by that love, either by a person, by a community, or by a presence of love in their lives coming from God or from the universe. Some lives are changed by this presence, by this feeling of something larger than themselves.
In my own difficult time of life, I also felt lost and alone for a time during my grief. But somehow I felt a similar presence of the Loving Universe caring for me through the actions and love of others. I was very lucky to have experienced this for it changed my life and invited me to find a way to live my life more meaningfully. To find a way to give back to life in return for what was given to me.
But sometimes, we don't find that presence. In fact, sometimes we feel empty and alone. We keep searching and we don't find what we were looking for. The joy we once felt in life is gone and the comfort we once took in the love from others isn't enough, or it has been taken away from us. Often in grief, in loss over someone or something we love, we can feel this kind of aloneness. And it doesn't feel possible to be restored to life again. It feels like we have searched the world over and not found what we need.
The story we read today tells of such a story. Schmuel has a dream that there is a treasure buried far away in another city and that he should go and seek it for himself. He travels far away, searching for that treasure but doesn't find it. The treasure, he learns, is buried in the floor of his own hut, buried right there really inside himself. The treasures that we seek far and wide and are not far away- they are within us.
I know that this is not always an easy truth to find. It is the most difficult truth to accept- that we have our own answers to life's elusive problems. Having the answer within us, doesn't mean that we should stay in our huts alone trying to find the answers we seek. The journey that we take to find these answers is just as important and the answer itself. In fact, some would say the journey is the answer. Many Unitarian Universalists would tell you that there is no one answer, but that in our journeys to find truth, we find ourselves. And when we journey not alone, but with others, it's the company we keep that helps us on the journey. The "Beloved Community" of our congregations is what accompanies us on this journey and keeps us connected to the larger presence of life.
While we can't find our truths inside of others, they can't give us the meanings we would find on our own, having people who care for us and stand beside us when we feel most alone and lost make us continue the journey and not give up.
Getting back to the TV show I described to you called "LOST", in case you haven't heard about it. The man who was shown to have deep problems in life but who tells his friend that together they can save the world - he has learned this lesson. He learned that someone holding his hand through his lonely search for himself enabled him to make it through. But what he may not have learned is that entering a secret computer code into a unknown computer program is not going to save the world. Because we must each define our own truth and meaning, we must each find it within ourselves.
I want to read you a poem that I've read you before but it is one of my favorites. It's by Antonio Machado, translated by Robert Bly.
Machado tells us that despite what is happening in our waking hours, whatever pain and loss we suffer, that deep in our hearts we have the strength to heal our own pain. We may not be aware of it because it is often hidden, we can't feel it when we are lost in the every day problems we experience.
In our everyday lives, we are plodding along trying to pay the bills, trying to get our work done, feeling sometimes the mundane and boring feeling over taking our lives. And then sometimes when we experience great loss and sadness or great difficulty like a hurricane, and we are plunged into the night. Plunged into darkness. But in that darkness, we sleep. And in our sleep we have "marvelous errors" happening because we may begin to feel that spring in our hearts that waters us, floods us with its healing and brings us "new life" that we never suspected we had. And in our sleep we feel the warmth of the sun filling us with light- the light of our own grace. Deep within us, we have this beehive of activity creating "sweet honey" from "old failures". Deep inside our hearts, we have something we might call God or Love or Strength- here inside of us, just waiting for us to find it in our search for truth and meaning.