The One Thing We Can Be Sure Of
The one thing we can be sure of is change. Daylight Saving Time just underscores the necessary fact. Change in our clocks, change in our families and lives, change in this congregation, change in the larger world. So many changes happening in the past several years, for all of us. For myself, I think of the sudden and unexpected death of my mother last January-she was only 66. And then, coming just a few months later, there was my decision to accept your call to become your new Senior Minister, and the subsequent move of my family and myself from Dallas/Fort Worth to this place, wonderful Atlanta. Putting down new roots. Finding our way around. Things happening so fast, it seems, that at times I have had to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.
It is just as a wise person once said: “The future has a way of arriving unannounced.” Yes it does. Change arrives unannounced. That’s what I want to talk about this morning. Facing change. Responding to it as constructively as possible. Riding it like a surfer rides a breaking wave.
To focus our thoughts on this, we draw from a parable that the Buddha told a long time ago. Here it is:
A man traveling through the mountains suddenly found himself being chased by a huge hungry tiger. He ran and ran until he came to the edge of a cliff. There, with nowhere else to go, he caught hold of a thick vine and swung himself over the edge.
Above him the tiger paced, and growled. Below him he heard a sound, and looked down to see another tiger waiting for him at the bottom of the vine.
Then he heard the faint sounds of something scrambling out from the cliffside, coming close. Mice. Two of them: one white, one black. They positioned themselves just beyond his reach, and started gnawing at the vine. At this, the man started to panic; they were eating through it way too quickly. But then, something else caught his attention: a completely unexpected, fragrant smell. A wild strawberry, a big one, growing out of the cliff near by. Holding on to the vine with one hand, he reached and picked the berry with the other.
How sweet it tasted!
And that’s our story this morning, about change. A parable that brings together odd images of a traveler, tigers, a vine, mice, and a strawberry. Inspired teachers like the Buddha, or Jesus, would often use parables, exactly because they say what has to be said in startling, memorable ways. Last thing they are is fast-food wisdom. Parables demand engagement, parables demand a relationship; and it’s when the student seriously wrestles with them that the result is far more than new thoughts but also a new way of being, a changed feeling for life.
So now we turn to wrestling with the Buddha’s parable, and we’ll start with its initial image of the man traveling through the mountains. That man could be any one of us,
engaged in the average everyday course of life; and while his environment happens to be mountains, it could equally be the mall or the local freeway; it could be the soccer field or the swimming pool; it could be one’s bedroom or living room; it could be one’s congregation. The man travels through the mountains and we brave traffic, we shop, we take our kids to sports practice and fun things; we watch TV or curl up with a good book; we engage with the business and pleasure of building religious community.
The question then becomes, With what kind of mindfulness do we do all this? And thus we enter into an additional dimension of what the man traveling through the mountains represents. There is a clear “before” and “after” to his story in the parable, and I see this “before” time as one of a state of aimlessness, in which he merely wanders. He has not yet found his spiritual path, or has forgotten about it; his feet are not yet upon the way, or they have strayed. Either way, his mind and heart are not sufficiently conscious of the fullness of death, nor sufficiently open to the Sacred Plenty in this world. He is sleepwalking through his life.
And that can be our story as well. Sleepwalking. Not having heard the call in life that is uniquely ours to hear-or hearing it but then resisting it, denying it. The call goes out to us. The call to service. The call to forgiveness and letting resentments go. The call that takes us to the brink of awe and then to the obligation to do something about that. But we don’t hear that call, or if we do, we shout it down, we deny it, we don’t believe. And so we go ahead and brave traffic, we shop, we chauffer our kids around, we enjoy entertainments, we do the work of church-and in all of it, there can be an aimlessness; there can be an inability to distinguish between what is important and what just feels urgent; there can be an anxious frittering away of energy and resources….
But if the Buddha’s parable teaches anything, it is that this aimlessness won’t last forever. Big changes will come into our lives, and they will come as ferociously as a tiger. Changes like the death of a parent or a spouse, or a divorce, or an illness. Experiences of injustice that are like a blow to the head. This is how the tiger roars into life. Big change. And when it does, it does not matter one bit how many college degrees you have, or the people you know, or even if you are the Senior Minister: you feel stripped to the bone vulnerable. You hear the roar, you see the teeth, and you run. That’s what it was like for me, when I got the call from my brother one Tuesday a little more than a year ago, that Mom was dead.
Big change. It can happen any number of times in a person’s life, until the final big change of one’s own death; and every time, there is this experience of being exploded out of aimlessness, and one’s feet put upon the spiritual path for the first time or the tenth time. Every time, the feeling of there being a hole in one’s heart. Every time, questions why, rising out of the depths. It’s like you’ve been living in a daze, and then some kind of tiger roars and brings your life to crystal clarity-fight or flight-and you can no longer be who you were, you can no longer do what you had been doing. Before you, the dual complex reality of the human condition rises up, and we remember something that we so easily forget: how joy and sorrow are inextricably interwoven, how abundance and scarcity live in tension with each other, how life and death are partners in a dance. That is the human condition. And it’s your choice how you will dwell in it, your choice.
The Buddha’s parable is about big change in life. But it’s also about small change as well. Not all changes are necessarily big, and in fact it’s the small changes that can worry and irritate us the most, in the same way that nothing else aches like a stubbed toe. This takes us to the part in the parable where the man has swung himself over the edge of a cliff and is hanging there, and mice come and start nibbling away at the vine, and the man turns frantic, as frantic as the characters in our comedy from earlier, squabbling away at each other, suffering from change indigestion….
Can you relate to that? Change indigestion? I can. I know what it is like to find places of temporary safety and security in life and to try to make them more than that, and then always to be disappointed and frustrated. It’s change indigestion that is the clue for me.
For example, I have come to expect that the newspaper will be outside my house, at the curb, every morning. My habit is to get up, get the paper, make coffee, and then read the paper. Simple. But when this little habit of mine is jolted-something has happened and the paper isn’t there waiting for me-it’s like a train wreck. You’d think the world was coming to an end. Let’s not even talk about what it’s like when the server goes down and I can’t access the Internet…..
Do you have habits like this? You invest them with an expectation of permanency, and when the expectation falls flat, and the small changes come like the mice in the parable, you feel horrible? Makes you resentful, makes you anxious?
Change indigestion can be especially severe when it comes to congregational life. Religious community brings out our deepest longings for safety and security, for an anchor in the midst of changing tides, and this longing is real and powerful no matter how sophisticated one might be, even if you are sophisticated enough to quote the ancient philosopher Heraclitus, who once said that the only thing that is certain is change, that no person ever steps in the same river twice. We can quote Heraclitus all day long, and yet the deep need and dream for permanency is still there. So we don’t like change in the congregation. We want to keep things the same, keep them regular, even if they don’t work well anymore, even if there is a truly better way possible. It cannot be underestimated how-bad or good-the habits and traditions of congregations become identity markers and holders of collective memory, and so to change even small things can trigger immense anxiety and resentment and grief, even a kind of temporary amnesia, as when you know longer seem to know where you are and how things get done. Change is tough. And yet … change is going to happen anyhow. It will. The future will arrive announced.
There is just something about the human personality that makes us long for the permanent; and so we invest our places of temporary safety with the expectation of permanency, and we are always disappointed. It’s change indigestion. The mice always show up, and each small bite into the vine is but a foretaste of the big bites of the tiger below.
This is what the Buddha’s parable is all about. Big change, small change: change is going to happen. The man hangs in there, on the vine, in a way that is all too impermanent, and we hang there with him. That’s us, too. So now what?
There are, in truth, at least two ways in which the Buddha’s parable could end: either in tragedy, or in triumph. And here’s what it all revolves around: the strawberry.
Is that not the most amazing image in the story? Tigers and vines and mice are all striking and shocking images, but that of the wild strawberry is something else again. It’s there in a completely unexpected way, like amazing grace-the man had absolutely nothing to do with putting it there-it’s just there, available to him, right there-and right in front of my nose and yours as well. A pure source of sweetness and hope…. And here’s where I wish I could sit down with each of you personally and ask, What does this image of the wild strawberry bring to mind for you? Where does it take you?
For me, the wild strawberry was a beautiful handmade card I received in the mail, soon after I had told this congregation’s search team about my Mom’s death. We had not yet gotten to know each other very well, but here was this card in the mail, and in it, besides the expressions of care and sympathy from the search team members, was this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Nothing is every wholly lost. That which is excellent remains forever a part of the universe.”
The wild strawberry. It was also what I and my family found when we arrived in our new home in Decatur back in August. We were exhausted after a drive that was intense and rushed; then we learned that the movers were still a couple of hours behind us although they were supposed to have been there when we arrived (which is why we didn’t take a more leisurely drive); and finally, the temperature was in the steamy unexpected high 90s. We were cranky, to say the least. So we cracked open the door to our new home, we tromped through the living room on our way to seeing the rest of the house, and it was all emptiness and echoes … except for this: a table and three chairs set up in the dining room, for us to use while unpacking our stuff; a welcome basket; an annotated list of local shops and stores; even a lovely potted herb garden on the back porch. Members of the congregation had done this.
It’s the wild strawberry. It’s simple generosity and kindness like this that preserves us and saves us in the midst of every change. Pulling together and not apart. Nothing less than a sign of what is highest in the human spirit-nothing less than the face and form of the love in this world that many people call God.
The wild strawberry. It’s the pictures that I found in my Mom’s purse, while we were going through her things, looking for important documents and papers as part of tending to her business affairs. In her massive purse that weighed (I swear) 12 pounds and contained stacks of neatly folded up receipts from Wal Mart and Krogers, old church bulletins, recipes clipped out of magazines, five tubes of lipstick, and about a million pennies-amid all this, I found four pictures. Only four: One of my older brother, one of me, one of my younger brother, and one of my daughter.
Love never dies. That’s what the wild strawberry represents for me. A Sacred Plenty that is in this world, in the midst of every change. A force, a flow, a creative process which is inherent in nature and inherent in our heart or hearts; and when we plug in to it, when we connect with it, it can transform us in ways we cannot transform ourselves. It can bring a peace that passes understanding, this amazing grace Spirit of Life that I have felt, this Spirit of the Sacred that I have felt in the arms of my wife and in the life of my daughter and in this holy place too, this space of worship, a Spirit flowing in and through our songs and prayers and sermons and on and on. Everlasting arms of love.
This is triumph. This is the man on the vine, in the midst of everything, reaching out his hand, and taking that strawberry, and tasting its sweetness. Right now, together, this is what we are doing. We are doing it now, and we can do it wherever we go in our lives. Cut right through the change indigestion that steals so much of our life energy to the directly realized truth that, in every moment we live, there is a boundlessness that the Buddha knew as Nirvana, that Jesus knew as God, that saints and sages and wise men and women of all times and places have known-and we can know it as well, in whatever diverse ways makes sense to us as Unitarian Universalists. Wild strawberries are real. Wild strawberries exist. They are right before your very nose and mine; and all there is to do is reach out and take a bite, taste the sweetness. It can happen for you, right here and right now.
And so it’s a great tragedy, if we DON’T do this. If we are so caught up in the crises of big changes and small changes that panic and resentment are all we know and allow ourselves to know, and we thrash away and we squabble away and we hurt others and we hurt ourselves. This is the other way the parable could end. Not with the man seeing the strawberry, not with the man reaching out and tasting, but him never noticing it, him just twisting there in the wind, endlessly, without faith in life, without hope.
Too many people prove the truth of something the writer Pearl S. Buck once said: “To eat bread without hope is still slowly to starve to death.” That’s right. Have all the bread you want. Stuff your face. But if there is not an ability to trust that there’s a larger hope to be either discovered or created, even when in the moment everything feels hopeless-if the basic trust in life is not there-then you’re starving. It’s just as psychologist Victor Frankl said: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.'” But without a why, even the smallest changes can come in and sweep a person away. You just hang on that vine, and there will never be an enlightenment, there will never be an experience of peace, there will never be a taste of life’s sweetness.
The Buddha’s parable is a story that each of us lives every day, in one way or another.
Tigers chasing us out of our aimlessness and onto a spiritual path; mice chewing away at the regularities and expectations that order our days. But the way the story ends is up to us. Shall it be twisting in the wind, hopelessness, resentment? Or choosing to trust that somewhere there is an amazing grace strawberry before us, and then allowing that trust to unfold: being calm enough to see the strawberry, reaching out for it, biting into it, tasting the pure beautiful sweetness of it…..
This is what I choose: I’ll pluck that strawberry, and I’ll eat.