Four Noble Truths by Rev. Anthony Maker

Reading

“David’s Story,” from My Grandfather’s
Blessings: Stories of Refuge, Strength, and Belonging
, by Rachel
Naomi Remen, M.D.

Our story today comes from a real life incident related to us by
Rachel Naomi Remen, a medical doctor whose special focus is counseling
those with chronic and terminal illness.

The story is about a teenager named David. David was diagnosed with
juvenile diabetes two weeks after his seventeenth birthday. He
responded to it with all the rage of a trapped animal. He flung
himself against the limitations of his disease, refusing to hold to a
diet, forgetting to take his insulin, using his diabetes to hurt
himself over and over. Fearing for his life, his parents insisted he
come into therapy. He was reluctant but obeyed.

After six months of therapy, he had not made much progress. But then
he had a dream, so intense he had not realized that he had been asleep
until he awoke. In his dream, David found himself sitting in an empty
room without a ceiling, facing a small stone statue of the Buddha. Now
he was not a religious person, so he didn’t know much about
Buddhism. All he knew was that he felt a kinship towards it, perhaps
because this Buddha was a young man, not much older than himself.

Now, the statue’s face was very still and peaceful, and it seemed
to be listening to something deep within David. It had an odd effect
on him. Alone in the room with it, David felt more and more at peace
himself.

David experienced this unfamiliar sense of peace for a while when,
without warning, a steel gray dagger was thrown from somewhere behind
him. It buried itself deep within the Buddha’s heart. David was
profoundly shocked. He felt betrayed by life, overwhelmed with
feelings of despair and anguish. From his very depths, a single
question emerged: “Why is life like this?”

And then the statue began to grow, and grow, and grow, so slowly at
first that David was not sure it was really happening. But it was.
This was the Buddha’s way of responding to the knife.

But its face remained unchanged, peaceful as ever. And the steel gray
knife did not change either. But as the Buddha grew larger, the knife
eventually became a tiny gray speck on the breast of the enormous
smiling Buddha. It took on proper perspective and size. Seeing this,
David felt something release in him. He could breath deeply again. He
awoke with tears in his eyes.

Sermon

You know, I love stories, and I love to tell them. I read a story like
the one we heard just a moment ago, and I’m right there with
David. His story speaks to my own. It helps me get in touch with my
own hurts; it encourages me to wonder about how I might be stronger
and wiser than I know; it reminds me that there are people in the
world like his parents and like Rachel Naomi Remen, whose help and
mentoring make all the difference; and it calls me to be a mentor to
others, to bring hope and healing in whatever ways I can. It’s
just a great story.

And I remember the first time I came across it. I had been thumbing
through some of the books in my library, looking for stories to preach
out of. And when I found David’s story, well, there’s only one
way to describe the effect: BAM. Something about it said to me,
Here is a slice of real life which illustrates the essential
truths of the human condition. Right here. All that waits is for
someone to make them explicit, say them straight.
That’s what
hit me when I read the story for the first time.

And that’s why I’m wanting to preach out of it today. Today is
the second Sunday of candidating week, and it’s been wonderful
getting to know so many of you, starting the process of building
relationships and building inroads into this community. With
today’s sermon, I want to share even more of my heart with you,
say as succinctly as I can the essential spiritual truths that have
been enduring influences on me and that will inspire my leadership
here, should you call me to it.

Four Noble Truths. Not the Buddha’s-although this phrase comes
directly from him and his influence is everywhere here-but my own four
noble truths, expressive of what my life experience and studies and
reason and conscience and intuition all have led me to, and verify as
honest and authentic.

And so I begin with my first noble truth, which is this: that life is
difficult. David’s story speaks to my own. I know what that steel
gray dagger feels like. For me, it wasn’t juvenile diabetes but
rather the unhealthy dynamic between my Mom and my Dad. Dad was a
highly educated man, a medical doctor, beloved by his patients and in
the larger community. To that community, we were a leading family in
town. But too much of it was whitewash. Behind closed doors, behind
the veneer of middle-class success, Dad struggled with what to do with
Mom and her mental illness of severe obsessive-compulsiveness. He was
a good man. He tried his best, like we all do. But for all his
education, Dad did not have sufficient life skills, did not know how
to cope, and he did not reach out. He isolated. After all, with all
his education, how could he not solve it all by himself? Sometimes he
did this by beating Mom up, though he hated himself for this-it was
something his Dad had done to him. Mostly he thought he could solve it
with prescription drugs, though he was no psychiatrist. All I know is
that as life at home progressively spiraled into deeper and deeper
levels of insanity. I got the message that my job was not to protest,
my job was not to stand up and say, This is wrong (although I did that
plenty of that, and often) but rather to get with the program, keep
the family secret, preserve the illusion to the world that everything
was OK, be the family hero. That was my job, even as home life was
chaotic, oppressive, sad, crisis-driven, isolated, grim. Dad gave Mom
drugs, then he started to take the drugs himself, and by the time I
and my older brother were away at college, he started to give drugs to
my younger brother. Now, Mom and Dad are dead, after lives that were
so hard; and my younger brother suffers from mental illness himself.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. All of it happening even though
the world thought we were a middle class success, a doctor’s
family.

I know what that steel gray knife feels like, how difficult life can
be. And we all have our stories. People right here among us, and
people in the world. Just this past Monday, the deadliest mass
shooting in U.S. history: 33 students and faculty of Virginia Tech,
dead. My heart is broken. So many steel gray daggers of suffering. All
the injustice and hate; our earth out of balance; all the greed and
poverty; all the wars and political lies. Suffering in the larger
world, and then suffering behind closed doors: sickness, cruelty,
addiction, financial difficulties, job insecurities, the loss of a
loved one. All steel gray daggers, plunging into the heart of the
Buddha.

But if there is one thing I have learned from the great religions of
the world, it is that suffering is fundamentally a condition of the
spirit. It is not equivalent to the physical disease or the physical
pain, although it accompanies them. Physical disease and physical pain
jar our largest assumptions about the world; they shatter any illusion
that we are ultimately in control. And so we find ourselves upon a
spiritual roller-coaster. We grieve: we go straight to denial and
isolation; we get furious at the world or at God or both; we try to
bargain our way back to what we think is normal; we fall into sadness
and depression realizing we can’t ever go back to the way things
were; and then hopefully we find a way to acceptance and a new source
of peace and hope in life. Physical disease and physical pain just put
us on this spiritual roller coaster and strap us in. And we cry, with
David in the story, “Why is life like this?” “Why is
life like this?”

Life is difficult. It is a noble truth about the human condition. It
just is. But suffering is not the last word. Suffering is never the
last word. There is more to say, and good news to know. And this takes
us to my second noble truth: that each and every person alive has
amazing inner resources to draw upon in healing their own suffering,
as well as the suffering of others. We are stronger than we know.
Growing up, despite everything, I knew with inexplicable yet
irrepressible certainty that life didn’t have to be this way, that
life was worth living. I felt this especially in the midst of nature,
its beauty and peace turning me on to the spark deep within myself.
And so I and others talk about a divine spark within, a still small
voice within. People talk about the sacred-and from the first, I have
believed it to be an ordinary, every-day kind of sacred, inherently
present in nature and in human life. When we tap into it, when we
mindfully connect with it, we find that we are changed: our
relationships are strengthened, our creativity is unleashed, our
possibilities are expanded. What has seemed unforgivable-we can
forgive. To larger realities like reverence, gratitude, justice,
compassion, and joy-the way is opened.

This is good news. Connecting with the sacred is an ever-present
possibility. Peace like a river can be ours right here and right now.
And once again, David’s story suggests how. His spark of the
divine takes the form of an inner Buddha. I just love that image. His
inner Buddha. And note that this wasn’t a construction of years of
intensive study and practice and effort on his part. Not even of
months or days. David wasn’t a religious person in a formal sense;
he didn’t know much about Buddhism at all. It’s just that
something wise deep within him felt a kinship with the Buddha image
and so used it to say, “Here I am!” His wisdom, deep within,
which didn’t have to be installed but was there already, from the
very beginning, hardwired in. There in all of us, too, whether
we’re aware of it or not. We are wiser than we know.

And this deep inner wisdom: it knows what to do with steel gray
daggers. It has the solution. While our egos might rage and curse at
adversity, our inner Buddhas GROW. It’s not that the physical pain
of life is ever taken away. The physical daggers never go away. But in
the face of death, illness, natural disasters, tragedies of every
sort, our souls can GROW, our vision of ourselves and what the world
means can GROW, and so finally every dagger assumes its proper place
and proportion in the scheme of things. The spiritual suffering
decreases. Compassion and courage and forgiveness increase. All the
tension within us, the way we hold our bodies as if we’re just
waiting for life to ambush us at any moment-we can let that go. We can
live in this world and say Yes to it. Accept all that it brings, all
the ups and downs. And our eyes will fill with tears. Our hearts will
soften, our eyes fill with tears. Love will grow here, in our hearts.

This is very good news. It is reason to give thanks. To allow
gratitude to fill us up to overflowing. Life is difficult, yes. But
connecting with the sacred is an ever-present possibility. Between
these two noble truths, the whole spectrum of spiritual possibilities
opens up.

And from this, we now turn to the question of living the journey. How
any individual and group might actually engage the suffering, realize
the sacred, live the journey. This is the special focus of the rest of
my noble truths.

And so: the third noble truth. It invites us to pause for a moment,
actually, and notice a strange fact about ourselves: how human beings
are fundamentally weird. Now hearing this, your initial response might
be, Speak for yourself, Anthony! But this is what I mean.
Yes, we are stronger and wiser than we know. Yes, connecting with the
sacred is an ever-present possibility. But despite all this, despite
all the inner resources available to us, we can live the journey of
our lives without ever tapping into them. Our life journey can be just
like that of kings and queens who have forgotten who they are, and act
poor when they are rich, weak when they are mighty! This is what
people can be like-my Mom and Dad were like that, and I have been like
that. And this is exactly what David was like, before he started his
therapy with Rachel Naomi Remen and even during it, until he had his
breakthrough.

It’s a fundamental weirdness. When abundance surrounds us and is
in us, at times all we see is scarcity. When new possibilities abound,
at times all we see are the same old things. So there must be
something getting in the way of us claiming our deep inner wisdom and
healing resources. Something getting in the way of us hearing that
still small voice within. And thus my third noble truth: there are
many obstacles to the sacred in life, many obstacles that explain our
human weirdness. Each of us has a divine spark within that knows how
to respond to adversity and knows how to be fully at peace in life,
but this does not immediately transfer over to our ordinary, everyday
selves. It’s a divided-self phenomenon. We are divided selves.
There are obstacles that come down smack between our inner Buddhas and
our conscious ego selves.

One form this takes is the instinct to self-isolate. And so as I think
of David’s parents, I wonder about what would have happened if
they had been like my parents, willing to acknowledge that something
was definitely wrong but unwilling to reach out for help. Unwilling to
admit that, for all their advanced degrees and social status, they
were helpless. Unwilling to remove their masks of self-sufficiency and
normalcy. If they had self-isolated and tried to solve things all by
themselves, I believe that David would be dead today. And in saying
this, I still affirm that he has a divine spark within him. So do his
parents. But the irony here is that for us to access our deep inner
healing resources, often it must be another person or community who
helps us to that. Do-it-yourselfism just doesn’t cut it.
Lone-rangerism falls flat on its face. An inner-directed spirituality
just doesn’t work well in isolation. Isn’t that ironic? But
there it is.

Self-isolationism is one obstacle to the sacred in our lives, and here
is another: psychological blocks like low self-esteem, fear, guilt,
perfectionism. Or ethical blocks like self-centeredness and
self-deceptiveness, or an inability to feel compassion for the other.
Psychological and ethical obstacles like these will run away with our
lives, steal away our life energy so none is left over for creativity,
for joy, for acts of love and justice.

And then there are systemic obstacles. What I’ll call social
evils. Social evils are like fields of force, invisible yet potent,
and when good people come under their influence: bad things happen.
Family systems in which addiction is a core dynamic; community systems
in which scapegoating and lack of trust are core dynamics; social
systems in which racism and sexism and homophobia and war lust and
misuse of the earth are core dynamics. Again and again: it breaks my
heart. It breaks my heart. All these are social evils that people plug
into, and when they do, a wall comes down between who they think they
are and their sacred inner resources down deep. A wall comes down, and
a life shrivels up.

So many obstacles to overcome. So many obstacles to break through. And
there is yet one more to consider. It has to do with what I want to
call “spiritual correctness.” It goes like this. Imagine
David tells us his dream, and we say to him, “David, only Jesus
is a doorway to the sacred. Go back and have another dream!” Or,
if David were to dream of Jesus, and we say to him, “Listen, only
the Buddha is a doorway to the sacred. Go back and have another
dream!” That’s spiritual correctness, and spiritual
correctness is spiritual tyranny. It puts idols in the way of
connecting with our deepest inner wisdom. It lowers our spiritual IQ.
I mean, to me it’s ridiculous how people can argue about who’s
right and who’s wrong when there are souls like David out there
who are fighting to find a way through life AND they are finding ways
that makes sense to them. You and me too!

All these obstacles. All are a part of the journey of our lives, and
here is what I know: at times they can feel so big, so huge, you can
feel beaten down before you even begin. You can feel like you’ve
lost before you’ve even tried. You hear stories about the great
heroes who have gone on before us, heroes who broke through the
obstacles and the blocks, heroes who connected with the sweetness
within and who changed the world without, and you say, Not
me
. Someone tells you about their vision of the phoenix, their
experience of transformation and rebirth and renewal, and you say,
Give me a break. You don’t want to hear that. Why go
there? Why try? There is no hope anyway, no hope.

So if we are to go beyond this, this despair-which is itself one of
the most powerful obstacles of all-then we must affirm hope. We must.
And it is my fourth noble truth: there is hope.

It’s also one of your truths. Recently, this congregation has been
defining its vision for how the world is to be different because it
exists. And one of these ends statements says this: “UUCA will
give to the world-hope. Hope that we as a
congregation, nation, and world can live harmoniously, with arms that
can reach across great divides to offer support, find friendship, and
make peace. We are a place where hope is born, and we give this gift
to the world.” I love it. You and I-we might be two bodies, up
until this point separated by distance and history and time, but our
hearts are one. One in hope. So many gifts that are ours to give. So
much to do, which we will do together, reaching towards a bright
future!

And giving hope to each other and to the world is key. Being hope
bringers. I know that in the past couple of years, this congregation
has experienced several big changes one after the other. The loss of a beloved Senior
Minister, and the search for a new one. All the adjustments and
transformations to the leadership systems of this congregation, so as
to make them more “large church” and more effective in
living out the purposes and values of this place. Friends stepping
back from the congregation, while all this has been going on. New
people coming in to the congregation, and some of them-not all, but
some-wondering, What is going on? Several big changes, one
after the other. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s bad or
good. Change is hard. Change hurts.

But we’re going to move forward together in healing and in hope.
We are going to move forward in forgiveness-bury the hatchet. Rise up
out of the ashes, like the phoenix. Yes we are. Too much is at stake
not to do this. We’re going to move forward, and more than ever
before, this congregation is going to become a spiritual dynamo which
builds up leaders. A place where hurts are held, and healed. A place
where people learn to connect with the spark of the divine within. A
place where the obstacles to peace and justice in life are broken down
and dissolved. A place where hope is held on to, and lifted up. It is
already happening here, in this place, and may it happen even more.
More and more of this, so that there are more and more hope bringers
in the world. More people who heal out of the integrity of their own
life experience. More people coming to identify the gifts and
strengths that are theirs, and equipped to serve out of them with
excellence. More people who see themselves as an integral part of the
ministry of hope here, serving a higher purpose and a higher calling.
More hope bringers. More and more. That’s the journey I aspire to
go on with you. That’s it, right there. Let’s share it
together. Amen.