Bad at Meditation by Taryn Strauss

I believe in the co-creation of the sermon just like I believe in the co-creation of Beloved Community.  I propose to show that though we may feel we are bad at meditation, it is our faith in the struggle and our holy intentions that will make us good.  At meditation.

I will do this by telling a story of two brothers, and then we’ll hear about a savior, a mystic, and then we’ll come around to celebrating that which we knew all along.  Are you ready?

Because I’m going to need your help to preach this sermon.  

Every time you hear a place to say the word “good,” I invite you to say, “good” and every time you think it’s time to hear the word “bad” you are invited to say “bad,” you got it?  

Once there were two brothers, twin brothers who were alike in many ways but in one essential way they were quite different.  One brother loved to please his parents, and tried every day to always be _(good)_____, while the other thought it was very exciting to see what happened when he would throw his bowl of cereal on the floor, kick down the tower of blocks, and generally do things that were considered ___(bad)________.  

These brothers were only three years old, but nonetheless, one recent morning their overly ambitious mother, that’s me by the way, decided to take them to an Episcopal worship service.  It was thanksgiving morning in Lexington Kentucky, and she was handling it all well and feeling pretty __(good)______, but realized she was spiritually tired, and she wanted to get to some kind of church, and she wanted it __(bad)_______.  

Back to these two young brothers.  Here is one, Townes, who like each one of us, was born __(good)______.  Townes sat with his hands folded, head bowed in prayer, before coming up at the appropriate moment, to sweetly proclaim in a raspy little voice, “thanks be to God, Amen.”  

Townes, who eagerly flipped to the proper page to sing words he could not read, who whispered questions about the majestic pipe organ, who sat rapt at the preacher’s animated homily.  But this sermon here, this is not about young Townes, who is clearly good at meditation.

His brother, Langston, who does eat all green vegetables, declaring them, “not that __(bad)____,” and possesses many lovely qualities, sat on my other side in the pew.  Over here, he wiggled- powerfully. He wriggled- vigorously. He heard his voice echo in the cavernous gothic sanctuary and so he tried out various sounds at the quietest moments.  A kind gentleman handed us coloring pages, which kept Langston’s attention for an entire twelve seconds before he wondered what sound ripping paper would make echoing throughout the sanctuary.   Perhaps my least favorite memory from this still stinging experience was when he wondering aloud if the pastor shared the same body part as he did, if they were both, indeed, possessing crucial elements of the male anatomy, as the pastor was preaching a rousing message.

It was at that moment, when my partner made eye contact with me, transmitting a fearful alarm that all my years of Our Whole Lives curriculum could not stifle:  OUR SON IS ___(bad)____!

But here’s the thing.  In between wiggles, Langston was working hard at meditation.  If one focused only on his moments of failure, one would completely miss the tremendous effort this child was expending just to spend a moment sitting still.  In between shuffles and scuffles, he was completely still, looking up, breathing in, forgetting where he was, he was struggling with his desire to become good at meditation!

But this story is also about the congregation, in whom my husband was slowly fantasizing a growing animosity, who he figured were each plotting how shame us into silence, or a swift departure.  To which I replied, if this congregation cannot welcome a couple of noisy kids in their service, then how strong is their faith after all?

Meditation is not about perfection.  It is not about perfect silence, or perfect focus, or the perfect amount of light.  You do not have to be good. You only have the let the soft animal of your body love what it loves, says the poet Mary Oliver.

We know, in this season of advent, we must stay awake to the hope, the light in this world.  There is so much wrong with our world, it is dizzying, designed to disempower us and melt us into a puddle of narcissism- “well I’ll just focus on me and my family,” or drop us off the cliff of overwhelm- when we think “the destruction and horror is too great, I’ll never be able to make a difference.”   

It is hard to know how to be good these days.  

When I think of these twins brothers and their disparate motivations, I think of Mary, pregnant with baby Jesus entering Bethlehem on a donkey.  It is no accident, that one so holy, so poised and elevated, rode in on a lowly, unpredictable animal.

Perhaps this image demonstrates an important lesson: here we have the contemplative parts of ourselves, our highest idealized self, our peaceful self, riding in on the animal part of ourselves.  The calm, the benevolent, the prickly, the restless, the instinctive. It is the union of these two parts, that gets us, finally into the holy city.

These two brothers, on either side of their anxious mother, they are are all of us.  They vie for attention within us, as we seek what Thomas Merton called the “True Self.”  Inside of you, are twin motivations: a part of you is obsessed with your own comfort, propelled by anxiety and restlessness.  There is another part of you, that aims to please others, to detach from your desires, and to be at ease in the world.

The practice of meditation is not arrival.  Do you know what nirvana literally translates to?  It means “blowing out, and becoming extinguished.” The time has not come for us to be extinguished, or emptied.  

It’s the struggle, the intention, the discipline- that’s the practice.  Not escaping from the world, or from yourself. Rather, let it in. Welcome the stranger into your meditation.  You do not have to be someone who is naturally unbothered. It’s okay to struggle, the struggle is the the point.  

In so many parts of our lives, not just meditation, we want to be good.  We want to do the right thing, say the right thing always.

Minister and mystic Rev. Howard Thurman joins us in our inner struggle to be someone who is good.

His is a meditation of desire, and returning to remember what he desires most.  

He writes,

I want to be better than I am in the responsibilities that are mine:

I am conscious of many petty resentments.

I am conscious of increasing hostility toward certain people.

I want to develop an honest and clear prayer life.

I want to be better than I am.


Like Mary, pregnant with Jesus entering Bethlehem, your highest self will ride in on the back of your most instinctive self, your twin motivations will struggle for expression, and we need not strive for perfection.   We are beloved as we are, even when we struggle with wondering if we are bad.

Quaker writer Parker Palmer reminds us

“Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness — mine, yours, ours — need not be a Utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.”

If we think of our spiritual selves in terms of two parts struggling for wholeness, where does that lead us?  What does this look like in our lives?

For those of you who have spent time commuting on the subways of New York City, or perhaps sitting in standstill traffic in Atlanta, you understand that particular experience of being united in powerlessness.  

Here you are, all together with your cohort of busy strangers, all late for something just like you, and suddenly a wrench is thrown into your plans:  the train stops, with no further information beyond “a delay.”

For those moments, my seminary professor Hal Taussig had a meditation and a mantra he adapted from John’s gospel:  He would look at each and every single person in the car and say to himself, “I am in you and you are in me and we are in God.” Grateful for this practice, I adopted it immediately, and I would find myself instantly calmed, and more than that.  Rather than suffering through hell, I was delighting in heaven. For the duration, I felt love for every single person in that car. No matter which rule of etiquette they were breaking, they received my love and goodwill.

I was experiencing the gifts of our first sacred UU source, the direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder for the gifts of life in the universe, and I was experience the gifts of our seventh principle, the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.  

Looking at each person on the subway car, I repeated the mantra, and I experienced the healing power of love that is revolutionary.  Revolutionary love that calls us to rethink the notion of sanctuary, and to build the sanctuary into our meditation.

The sanctuary is the place where the stranger is always invited in, where the refugee is always welcome, the loud, crying child, into our holy sanctuary, made holier by the child’s cry.  Revolutionary love calls us to love past our own personal needs and desires, and align them with the desires of those around us. Rather than blocking people out to suffer through a subway ride, I let them in.  This is what Unitarian Universalists must do. This is your call. Do you want to be good at meditation? Don’t shut the world out. Let it in. Attune yourself to something beyond yourself, whether you call that God, or Spirit, or Community.  

This is always here for you, ready for you to simply let go of what you think makes you a good person of faith, good at meditation.  Release the striving for a perfectly quiet mind. Just like the sanctuary in that Episcopal church, your personal sanctuary can accommodate the twin selves, your calm self, your fussy, needy, busy self.   Maybe the moment has come to throw open the sanctuary of your heart and invite the struggle, welcome the strangers in your midst, and see what happens.

May the sacred struggle of your twin motivations lead you to a sense of wholeness, and may you ride into the holy city seeking refuge for a moment, knowing that even as you long to be better, that intention is the source of goodness.  You are already beloved, your most poised self, your most instinctive self, all if it, is your true blessing for the world.

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