All Souls Kansas City

October 27: “Before and After” with Rebecca Gant

Click here to start at the sermon.

I remember the first time I was aware of crossing a state line. I was young- maybe 6 or 7. I’m sure that we had crossed state lines in our car before, since we lived in southern Kansas and Oklahoma was not that far away, but I was a reader and this meant that car rides were for reading- not for looking out the window. Because I was a reader, and had seen maps, for some reason on this car ride I wanted to witness the crossing. Maps show rivers as blue- which was pretty close to the color that they are. Roads on maps are grey- which made sense- or red- which did not. But I knew that state borders are marked on maps- usually as black lines– and I was intrigued to see how that black line would look in real life. We were driving on highway 281, a two-lane road going south from Kansas into Oklahoma. We drove along through the Kansas countryside in our bug-spattered station wagon. Soon, I noticed signs for a town that I knew was in Oklahoma. When had we crossed the border? I remember being disappointed. I had assumed, I guess, that there would be more fanfare or a line on the ground or at least a sign to mark the division, or that the land would look different—I mean, on the maps, Kansas is symbolized by a sunflower or wheat and Oklahoma by an oil rig, but I did not see evidence of that change. I did not expect that we would just drone along in the dusty sunshine crossing state lines willy-nilly. But no- we crossed that line without even noticing, and the Oklahoma red dirt and cattle ranchland looked just like the Kansas red dirt and cattle ranchland. For an imaginative child, it was a huge let-down. We were now in an entirely different state, and my parents had not even noticed.

Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez writes:
I sense that my boat
has struck, deep down,
against some massive thing.
And nothing happened.
Nothing… silence… waves.
Nothing happened?
Or perhaps, everything happened
And here we are,
at ease, with the new

I suspect many of you can relate to the experience of the metaphorical boat you travel in striking something deep, and waiting and wondering what the repercussions of it will be. Will this event that seems important at the moment have any impact on your life? What is going to change? What will stay the same?

Sometimes the impact with that deep thing is a predictable result of our carefully laid plans- like the changes that come with having children or getting married or taking a new job- and sometimes the massive thing that our boats strike seems random and out of our control- like a sudden illness or death or the ending of a relationship.

Twenty-four years ago, I struck something deep—Our older daughter was born. My husband and I had dated for five years before we married, and waited another five years to have children. At that point in my life, I was pretty sure about who I was and where my metaphorical boat was going. And then on that October morning, an entirely new person entered the world and our lives … and in that moment, we changed from a couple to a family. I was still the same person, lived in the same city, had the same spouse and parents and siblings. I was the same, but adding the category of “mother” to my identity meant that I would never be the same again.

A larger example of an event like this happened in 1961, when two small denominations – the Unitarians and the Universalists – completed the merger that their youth groups had begun eight years earlier. The two groups brought their identities to the marriage, and though opinions differ on how well the two groups’ identities were honored and carried forward into Unitarian Universalism, they did merge to create a new religion. On that day, I’m guessing that to members of both groups, it felt like everything and nothing had changed.

We as a country have had these types of watershed moments- D-Day, the dropping of the atomic bomb, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the election of Barack Obama, our first black president. You can probably think of other national moments- as well as some personal ones.

When you break it down, every moment is like that—something happens and nothing happens. Or everything has happened and we are, as the poet says, at ease—or at least learning to be at ease—with the new.

The truth is, though, that often we are not at ease with the new way of being – even when it is the result of our own choices. New ways of being can be difficult- even when we plan for them, because growth means change, and change means losing the way things are.

Recently a friend posted a comic on her Facebook feed that illustrates the difficulty of growth and change. In the panel, there are two cartoon figures seated at a table as if for a conversation. Seated on one side of the table is the figure labeled “growth.” Across the table is another figure labeled “comfort.” The body language of the figure labeled “growth” signals that “growth” is in charge of this conversation- the posture is open, confident. Comfort’s posture indicates something other than comfort- that figure’s head is down, shoulders slumped. Growth speaks, saying “This– this is just not going to work out.” Growth and Comfort do not easily co-exist.

We humans struggle to avoid the discomfort caused by growth and change. We often create routines and habits, and seek refuge in things that feel like they will remain the same—but that comfort is a false comfort. The truth is that things will change and we will grow whether we want to or not.

I sense that my boat
has struck, deep down,
against some massive thing.
And nothing happened.
Nothing, silence, waves.

Sometimes, when we collide with something deep below the water, we are very much aware that something happened. These are often times when we face loss—possibly the loss of someone we love, or perhaps the loss of prestige, or maybe the loss of our autonomy.

We know the wisdom of letting go of trying to control how events unfold. The trees are teaching us that lesson now as they release their leaves and fruits so that their energy might be conserved for the winter. The Buddhist tradition teaches that if we can become less attached to things, we will suffer less.

We know this as well—that sometimes things must die in order for new things to grow. Our future lives will emerge from the fertile compost pile of our past experiences.

But knowing this to be true and welcoming or enjoying it are two different things.

In the poem Scott read, Mary Oliver laments the loss of a chesty oak tree that stood near Blackwater Pond. She writes she’s “tired of that brazen promise: death and resurrection.” She’s “tired of hearing how the nitrogens” present in her favorite lightening-felled tree “will return to the earth again.” She says that what she loved “was THAT tree—tree of the moment– tree of my own sad, mortal heart”

She is grieving, and in her lament, the stories about what new growth will come from this loss are not comforting—and yet they are true.

Year after year, my family gets together to celebrate our birthdays. We gather around the table for the birthday party and everything is the same. The standard birthday cake is chocolate sheet cake with Breyer’s vanilla bean ice cream and I’ve been re-using the same set of party hats and banners since my girls were little. Everything is the same… except for the things that are not. The love and gentle teasing are the same… but some who have loved and teased us are no longer living and new friends and partners appear at the table. We feel the love of those who have died just the same, but we miss their touch. The song is the same, the cake is the same, the candles are the same– and the new people at the table have changed us by bringing new traditions and stories to the party. We are both less than and more than we have been.

Or perhaps, everything happened
And here we are,
at ease, with the new

How can we get to what the poet calls “ease with the new?” What helps us when we feel ourselves striking something deep under the water, something that knocks us off balance?

In my experience, knowing that I’m not alone is what comforts me in those moments of disequilibrium. When my mother died about ten years ago, I felt like I had joined a club of people who had lost their parents—it was a big club, and most people are destined to join it, so I was definitely not alone. Through that experience, I learned things that I had not known before, like which phrases and actions might be helpful to a person who is grieving and which ones are probably not. I learned that when my friends lost a parent, as they inevitably would, I should mark dates on my calendar such as their parent’s birthday and the date of their death. That way, I can reach out to my friends on those difficult anniversaries. I learned this by being in the club, from the kindness and sensitivity and the example of people who had been in that club longer than I. People who had lost parents and who knew what to say and do to comfort me and show that I was not alone.

The same was true when I became a parent. I found some friends who were also new parents who were willing to talk about the changes that a child brings. We could share the stories of our children’s births, the triumphs of finally having a child out of diapers, the frustration of bedtime, and we could laugh about some of the ridiculous situations we found ourselves in.

When you strike something deep, it’s easy to forget that there are people who are willing to be with you when you feel unsteady and when you’re unsure of what damage- if any- has occurred. In both grief and joy, it is good to remind ourselves and one another that we are not alone.

When we feel alone, in our forgetting of our interdependence, we are like the people in the poem Dayna read earlier, people standing on the edge of the river “staring into time, whispering mistakenly: only here. Only now.” The reality is that our joys and sorrows are both exquisitely specific to us and universally mundane. We can find echoes of our own experience in art and stories and friendship and these echoes help heal our feelings of separateness.

I sense that my boat
has struck, deep down,
against some massive thing.
And nothing happened.
Nothing, silence, waves.
Nothing happened?
Or perhaps, everything happened
And here we are,
at ease, with the new

An area in which I have seen significant growth in our denomination and in myself has been in white Unitarian Universalists’ increasing awareness of the systems of domination in our organization and in our world—most visibly, the system of racialized oppression. This is definitely one of those instances when growth and comfort do not co-exist. To become more aware of the culture of racial domination has meant that white people have needed to take a good look at where we cooperate with and benefit from systemic oppression. White folks have needed to remain aware of how we contribute to oppression in our relationships. We have needed to let die the false idea that racism has nothing to do with us because “we are good people—we’re not racist.” We have needed to widen our vision beyond the personal to look at the systemic and find ways to affect the system.

Another growing awareness has been the urgency of responding to the climate crisis. This awareness has required similar inventories of environmental policies and personal behaviors. We must search for places where we can have leverage in the larger system.

The boat carrying UUs has collided with some massive things- which is the reality of our oppressive systems and the danger to our planet- and though we may look the same as we did before, we will never be the same. And it is uncomfortable. But we cannot and, I hope, will not go back, so we must look for ease in this new way of being.

We can find that ease by choosing to act for our collective liberation. We can find ease in joining our efforts with others who are working to find a solution to our climate crisis. We will find ease in matching our actions with our values.

There’s no end in sight to the collisions our metaphorical boats will have with something deep and massive, so we will never run out of opportunities to practice evaluating the effects of these collisions and to practice finding ease in each moment of newness. These moments challenge us to accept the discomfort of growth and allow it to change us.

When I turned 30, I finally stopped believing that any milestone birthday would bring a feeling of being a totally different person- that, like that state line I imagined, there would be a clear division on the day I turned 10 or 18 or 21 or 30 between what I was before and what I would be in the future. Now, when we sit around the table and sing the same songs –over the same cake –wearing the same party hats, I try to celebrate what has been, to accept the change that has come, and know that I am both the same as I have always been and never the same again. And I attempt to rest in the ease of the new.