“The Life I Am Living”
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Carol Rosine
At the First Universalist Society in Franklin on January 3, 2016
Reading: “Out of the Stars’ by Robert Weston
The columnist, James Carroll, says, “What if we could know for certain that the coming year would be the world’s last year? Abstracting from the way in which the climax of history would occur and leaving aside all visions of apocalypse, how would it change our approach to life and time if we knew that one year from today everything would end?”
He goes on to speculate about whether it would make sense to continue a military presence in Iraq & Afghanistan since one reason sited for doing this is to prevent terrorist activities in the future. But what if we knew that there would be no future? He wonders whether we would continue sitting on the sidelines as Israel & the Palestinians continue their death struggle? Whether our current obsession over national security and fear of home-grown terrorists would dissolve. Would we realize, he says, that the great wealth that continues to be controlled by our nation could be used “so that the hungry would know for once the luxury of a full stomach? Would we open up our storerooms and give away the surplus medicine, blankets, clothing, utensils, books, bread? Would we discover to our shame how much of that bread had gone stale because we had more than we ourselves could eat?” What would change in our nation if we knew for sure that this year would be the world’s last year? What would change in our individual lives?
We can pretty much assume that this is not going to happen—that the world will not end on December 31st. But what if we were to live as if this might be true? Would we stop worrying about our 401K’s? Would we take that cruise to Alaska or visit the temples on Bali? Would we re-organize our closets or tell someone we’re sorry or cook a fabulous meal for those we love the most or read that book we’ve been meaning to get to forever?
Would we, perhaps, organize our time around one single reason for being? “And what might that be? Wealth? Fame? Pleasure? Control? Happiness? Justice? Or might it be love?” (James Carroll)
The problem for most of us, at least a big chunk of the time, is that we sleepwalk through our lives. Totally oblivious to how quickly time is passing. Not even noticing what a miracle it is that we’re alive at all. “Out of the stars have we come…. Rising from rocks and the sea, kindled by sunlight on earth, arose life…”
Beautiful, awe-inspiring poetry, and yet how often do we pause and ponder words like this? We may know intellectually that life is a miracle, but it is quite another matter to be able to see this, because the reality is that most of us are focused on our own little worlds most of the time. The immensity of the universe and our place in it, rarely enter our consciousness. And in this little world that is our life, most of what we do becomes automatic, we learn how to do our tasks so thoroughly that we can perform them without even thinking. These are traits that help us survive, because if our focus is on just our own little worlds and if we’re able to do most things without even thinking about them, it is easier for us to cope with our daily lives and we can get a whole lot more done, of course. At least this is the way it is for me. I know that lots of times when I pull into a parking place and turn off my car, I have no conscious memory of how I got there. I’ve been totally oblivious. On automatic pilot —literally.
The problem, of course, is that we miss out on a huge chunk of life when we spend so much time on automatic pilot and focused on just our own selfish interests. We’re not able to see what a miracle it is that life exists at all. That we exist at all. And we end up sleepwalking through this precious life that’s been given to us. But if we were to start paying closer attention to life—if we were to start waking up a bit—what difference would it make in our lives?
Well, for one thing we might start pondering what it is we have done with our lives up to this point and if, indeed, we have been living a life true to what we are meant to be doing. And being.
William Safford begins one of his poems like this:
“Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life….”
Ask me whether what I have done is my life…. Parker Palmer says, “For some, those words will be nonsense, nothing more than a poet’s loose way with language and logic. Of course what I have done is my life! To what am I supposed to compare it?
But for others, and I am one, the poet’s words will be precise, piercing, and disquieting. They remind me of moments when it is clear—if I have eyes to see—that the life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me. In those moments I sometimes catch a glimpse of my true life, a life hidden like the river beneath the ice. And in the spirit of the poet, I wonder: What am I meant to do? Who am I meant to be?”
You may be familiar with his pondering when he continues like this:
“ I was in my early thirties when I began, literally to wake up to questions about my vocation. By all appearances, things were going well, but the soul does not put much stock in appearances. Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one’s own. Fearful that I was doing just that—but uncertain about the deeper, truer life I sensed hidden inside me, uncertain whether it was real or trustworthy or within reach—I would snap awake in the middle of the night and stare for long hours at the ceiling.
Then I ran across the old Quaker saying, ‘Let your life speak.’ I found those words encouraging, and I thought I understood what they meant. ‘Let the highest truths and values guide you. Live up to those demanding standards in everything you do.’ Because I had heroes at the time who seemed to be doing exactly that, this exhortation had incarnate meaning for me—it meant living a life like that of Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks or Mahatma Gandhi or Dorothy Day, a life of high purpose.
So I lined up the loftiest ideals I could find and set out to achieve them. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque. But always they were unreal, a distortion of my true self—as must be the case when one lives from the outside in, not the inside out. I had simply found a ‘noble’ way to live a life that was not my own, a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart.”
I spent a lot of time over the course of my life, especially in my early years and mid-life years, wondering who I was and what I was to be doing. There for a while I was really off course as I tried to fit into being what a good daughter should be. I became a nurse because my mother’s dream of becoming a nurse had been thwarted by the depression, so I believed that it was up to me to live her dream. Later I set aside my nursing career in order to follow my husband around the country, from one job to another. This is what I believed I had to do back then, it was what society expected women to do. Thank God I found some ways in the midst of that wandering to listen to what was happening inside of me. To listen closely enough to hear what was calling to me. Because I know that for me, it has been right to be doing the work that I have done. I have loved my ministry with all of you. At least most of the time, I have loved it!
I know that this wandering and pondering is true for some of you as well, as you sense that something isn’t quite right, that the work you’re doing doesn’t satisfy in the way it used to, that something else seems to be pulling you, that perhaps you’re to be living in a different way. One of my favorite Rumi poems begins like this: “All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea….” Here’s one of the great Sufi mystics. Someone who was able to touch the eternal more than most. Who was able to catch glimpses of what is ultimately true and good and right. And what’s his response to his pondering about what he’s to be doing? He says he has no idea. What a comfort this has been to me over the years as life has happened to me. As I’ve tried to figure out who I am and what I’m to be doing.
There’s an ancient Hasidic tale told about Rabbi Zusya, who when he was an old man said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ’Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’
Why were you not Zusya? Are you the person you were intended to be? Have you been true to your deepest self? The self that’s running beneath that ice-covered river? The self that’s been there since the beginning?
I have told you before about a letter that Parker Palmer intends to write to his granddaughter one day. This is what he says: “If you doubt that we all arrive in this world with gifts and as a gift, pay attention to an infant or a very young child. A few years ago, my daughter and her newborn baby came to live with me for a while. Watching my granddaughter from her earliest days on earth, I was able, in my early fifties, to see something that had eluded me as a twenty-something parent: my granddaughter arrived in the world as this kind of person rather than that, or that, or that.
She did not show up as raw material to be shaped into whatever image the world might want her to take. She arrived with her own gifted form, with the shape of her own sacred soul. Biblical faith calls it the image of God in which we are all created. Thomas Merton calls it true self. Quakers call it the inner light, or ‘that of God’ in every person. The humanist tradition calls it identity and integrity. No matter what you call it, it is a pearl of great price.
In those early days of my granddaughter’s life, I began observing the inclinations and proclivities that were planted in her at birth. I noticed, and I still notice, what she likes and dislikes, what she is drawn toward and repelled by, how she moves, what she does, what she says.
I am gathering my observations in a letter. When my granddaughter reaches her late teens or early twenties, I will make sure that my letter finds its way to her, with a preface something like this: ‘‘Here is a sketch of who you were from your earliest days in this world. It is not a definitive picture—only you can draw that. But it was sketched by a person who loves you very much. Perhaps these notes will help you do sooner something your grandfather did only later: remember who you were when you first arrived and reclaim the gift of true self.’”
Most of us never received a letter like Parker Palmer intends to send to his granddaughter. And so we’re left on our own to remember who we were when we first arrived. To find our true selves, our true identities, that within which is of God, perhaps.
I had a dream come to me many years ago, during a time of restless ness when I knew that nursing was no longer right for me, but I didn’t know what I should be doing instead. I didn’t have a college degree, so the thought of leaving nursing and starting over was overwhelming. I had started meditating and practicing yoga every day, and as I became more centered, more reflective, the dream came in which I was sitting on a chair. In front of me was a little girl with blond curly hair and blue eyes sitting cross-legged and holding up her arms, wanting me to pick her up. I took her onto my lap and as I held her close, she began to sing. Her voice grew strong and I looked down at her, wondering how such a big voice could be coming from such a little girl. A voice, of course, that was coming from me. A voice yearning to be heard. It was after this dream that my call to the ministry came.
Have you found your voice my friends? The voice coming from whoever it is that you are intended to be? Have you discovered what it is that you are to be doing with your life?
I’m betting that we can count on the world not coming to an end on December 31st, however, we could decide to live as if this might be so. Not running scared, of course, filled with fear, but deciding instead to pay closer attention to the life we have been given, the life that we are intended to be living.
“This is the wonder of time” Robert Weston says. “This is the marvel of space; out of the stars swung the earth; life upon earth rose to love. // This is the marvel of life, rising to see and to know;// Out of your heart, cry wonder: Sing that we live.
Sing: “For All That is Our Life” #128
May Sarton says: “Now I become myself.
It’s taken time, many years and places—
I have been dissolved and shaken
Worn other people’s faces….
As this year unfolds may we have a clearer idea of who we might be and what it is that we are to be doing. And may we do it together.
Copyright Carol Rosine and FUSF, 2016.