This is a sermon I gave at my church, Neshoba Unitarian Universalist, on Sunday, June 11.
Not long ago, I heard some good advice from a friend. She was referencing Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, in which the author tells the story of her 10 year-old brother who had to write a report for school on the Birds of North America. The young boy had been given 3 months in which to complete this assignment, but in the way of 10-year olds (and some 20 & 30 year olds and even some 40 year olds), he had put it off until the last possible moment.
As he faced a looming deadline, he began to panic and crawled under the kitchen table, crying that there was no way he could do this, it was too much. He was completely overwhelmed by the prospect of having to write this report on the Birds of North America. His father, who must have been a wise man, crawled under there with him and said it will all be OK. You can do this. You just have to take it one bird at a time. Write the report bird by bird.
What great advice for all of us. There are certainly days when I feel like crawling under the kitchen table because my to-do list seems impossibly long. Or my workload seems extraordinarily complicated. Or I have agreed to give a sermon at church and have no idea what to write. I just need to remember that it will all be OK. I can do this. I just have to take it bird by bird.
I don’t have to write the whole sermon at once. I just need to write the first paragraph. Not even the first paragraph – just the first sentence. Once I do that, then it will all start to flow.
Since I couldn’t even think of a first sentence when I sat down to write, I decided I would begin with a few jokes. Break the ice, so to speak! A quick Google search yielded plenty of results. You may have heard these before, but as in most jokes, the humor is in the grain of truth that they contain!
So in the style of Jeff Foxworthy, who tells the redneck jokes, I have found several ways to tell if you are a UU. Some of them I adapted to be relevant to us here at Neshoba.
You might be a UU if …
* you are unsure about the gender of God.
* you have ever been in an argument over whether or not breast milk is vegan.
* you dress for a formal evening out by wearing a tie-dye t-shirt and Birkenstocks (and your wife thinks you look great!)
* you get Newt Gingrich confused with the Grinch who Stole Christmas.
* the money you spent at Christmas last year on gifts for the Bond Homes was more than you spent on your mother.
* You think a Holy Day of Obligation means it is your turn to bring flowers.
And finally, you might be a UU if…
* you think the Holy Trinity is “reduce, reuse and recycle.”
I found another UU joke with a grain of truth:
To have a few doubts is normal.
To have many doubts is a crisis of faith.
To have constant doubts is a conversion to Unitarian Universalism
Doubt. Now there’s a topic I can get behind! My spiritual journey has been full of doubt – but according to Jose Bergamin Gutierrez, Spanish writer and poet, that can be a good thing. He wrote “A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.” Another poet had similar feelings about doubt. In his epic poem In Memoriam, Alfred Lord Tennyson penned this couplet:
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
Doubt comes very easily to me – probably to most people. Faith takes more practice. One of the benefits of doubt is that it has led me to learn more than I ever would have if I just blindly accepted the faith of my parents or of those around me. Feeling doubt has given me permission to ask questions, to listen to others’ experiences, to search for answers in a variety of places. It has given me reasons to explore my beliefs in the context of daily life. And it has led me down paths I never would have explored if I had never questioned what I had been told to believe.
In doing some Internet research on the idea of doubt, I came across an author named Macrina Wiederkehr. She is a Benedictine nun at an Arkansas convent and has written several books. In one, I found a prayer that includes the line quoted in the order of service – May there always be a little faith in your doubt. Gutierrez would probably say “May there always be a little doubt in your faith.”
Another of Sister Macrina’s books is titled A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary. As a collector of angels, I was intrigued by the title. Although there are a variety of ornaments on our holiday tree each year, there are definitely more angels than any other figure – it is truly a tree full of angels! Really, throughout the year, you can find angels in my house. I have quite a collection!
To me, angels represent the good in ourselves and in others. They watch over me, helping me remember to treat others with kindness and to look for the good in those around me. You can find images of angels everywhere. They are depicted in art, sold as figurines and jewelry, even portrayed as characters in books and movies. One image of angels that I like to picture in my mind was inspired by the Nora Ephron movie “Michael”, starring John Travolta and Andie McDowell. In one scene, a small dog is hit by a truck and the title character scoops him up, wraps his wings around the lifeless body, and lo and behold, the dog jumps out of his arms, fully restored. While that “miracle” may be a bit hard to believe, I love the image of our “guardian angels” holding us close, wrapping us up in their wings.
My mental image of angels is also partly inspired by Frank Peretti’s book This Present Darkness – a story of a spiritual battle between angels and demons, the classic conflict of good vs. evil, with the force of good embodied in the large, white-robed figures that are strengthened by the prayers of the faithful.
While the idea of praying is one I have struggled with, I do like the image of angels gathering strength from people who pray for others. At the Women’s Retreat this past April, I attended a workshop titled “Praying in Color”. In it, I learned that we can pray FOR someone without praying TO someone. Praying can mean focusing one’s energy on one thought, one action, one person. Holding that person in your heart, sending good thoughts out into the universe, blessing them with your love. When I pray for someone, I like to envision them surrounded by light and love, wrapped in the wings of an angel.
Another inspiration for me is a song by the group Alabama called Angels Among Us. It tells the story of a young boy who gets lost in the woods and a mysterious figure who appears and helps him home. The chorus goes like this:
I believe there are angels among us
Sent down to us from somewhere up above
They come to you and me in our darkest hours
To show us how to live
To teach us how to give
To guide us with a light of love
Whether or not you believe in supernatural, miraculous events, in the battle between the forces of good and evil, in the appearance and disappearance of mysterious figures, the idea that there are people around us who help in times of trouble, who share our pain and our joy, who teach us how to live and give and love, can be very comforting.
Over the years, I have found some of those angels among us – friends who have offered support when I needed it, a shoulder to lean on when I was feeling vulnerable, a sounding board when I had to talk through a problem, a wise word when I was feeling unsure. So while I often doubt the existence of God in the traditional sense, I do believe in angels. They are all around me. Unfortunately, sometimes I get too caught up in my life to pay attention. I need to remember to take the time in my busy days to look for them.
The second part of the title of Sister Macrina’s book, A Tree Full of Angels, is about seeing the Holy in the Ordinary. One thing that I have learned in my quest for answers is that the sacred is not limited to religious figures, ancient writings, or dogmatic creeds. I have learned to look for the Holy in the mundane, to experience the divine in others, to find those moments of grace between the pages of daily life.
As many of you know, I have talked before about my discomfort with the idea of God – at least the God of my childhood. But I am fairly comfortable with the idea of a Higher Power. For me, that Higher Power is manifested in ourselves. I believe that there is something divine in each one of us, something sacred in all that we see and do and experience in this world.
When we join together in community, whether during Sunday morning service, a Friday night POW gathering, a Tuesday evening committee meeting, or a Saturday Circle Supper, we are creating a sacred space just by sharing ourselves with each other.
When we walk a labyrinth or serve at a soup kitchen or welcome a new member, we are experiencing the divine in ourselves and in others. We are sanctifying the rituals of daily life. By living fully in each moment, we can learn to find the holy in the ordinary. We can find a blessing in the daily events of our lives.
Those blessings can come in many forms — the good, the bad, and even the ugly. Blessing is an interesting word. We can offer blessings and we can receive blessings. We bless and are blessed by those in our lives who love and support us. We are also blessed by the beauty of the natural world, by that which inspires and excites us. We welcome the blessings of all the positive things that happen to us as we journey through life.
But we can also be blessed by the difficult times, by the challenges we face, by our doubts and by those who do not support us. We are blessed by these trials because they present us with opportunities – even uncertainty is an opportunity. Everything we do and everything that crosses our path – people, situations, ideas – all have the potential to contribute to our growth and understanding.
A faith that is tested can give us the opportunity to explore other traditions and learn more about who we are as individuals. An unexpected death can bring a family closer together in shared grief. An injustice in the world can offer us the chance to stand up for what we believe. A family illness can create an opportunity to learn things we might not have otherwise.
One of the challenges I have been dealing with recently is my father’s declining cognition. While Alzheimer’s robs us of the people we know today, one blessing has been that I have learned more about who my father was as he moves further and further back in time. I am learning about his life as a child on the farm, as a young man in the navy and as a husband and father working to support his family. Another blessing in this difficult time is that I feel that in helping to care for him, I am, in a small way, repaying him for all that he has done for me over the years.
So back to the image of the boy under the table. When I am feeling overwhelmed by the doubts and challenges of life, when I can’t see the blessings I know are there, when I am too rushed to notice the angels among us, I need to remember, it will all be OK. I need to come out from under the kitchen table, face my challenges head on, and seek those blessings, those sacred moments, those hints of the holy in the daily rituals of life, one at a time. Bird by bird.