Stand There

[Sermon preached at UU Society of Wellesley Hills, May 2009]

I. Opening Reading: Fault Line, by Robert Walsh

Did you ever think there might be a fault line
Passing underneath your living room:
A place in which your life is lived in meeting
And in separating, wondering
And telling, unaware that just beneath
You is the unseen seam of great plates
That strain through time? And that your life, already
Spilling over the brim, could be invaded,
Sent off in a new direction, turned
Aside by forces you were warned about
But not prepared for? Shelves could be spilled out,
The level floor set at an angle in
Some seconds' shaking. You would have to take
Your losses, do whatever must be done

When the great plates slip
And the earth shivers and the flaw is seen
To lie in what you trusted most, look not
To more solidity, to weighty slabs
Of concrete poured or strength of cantilevered
Beam to save the fractured order. Trust
More the tensile strands of love that bend
And stretch to hold you in the web of life
That's often torn but always healing. There's
Your strength. The shifting plates, the restive earth,
Your room, your precious life, they all proceed
From love, the ground on which we walk together.

II. Opening Words

Before I begin the sermon, I want to take just a moment to thank you for being such a wonderful teaching congregation this year. I can hardly believe that my internship is already coming to an end, but next Sunday will be my last day here in Wellesley. I owe all of you, and especially Phyllis, many thanks for this experience. I do feel that I will be a better minister because of everything I have learned here.

I wrote a few lines in the newsletter by way of a goodbye, and offered a few of my fondest memories, but I've decided this morning to tell you what my real favorite memories from this year are.

I think the first one is of the fall retreat, specifically getting lost on our hike. There's nothing like getting lost to bring out people's true personalities! This is when I really started to get to know people! Certainly one of my favorite parts of this year was the pastoral care visits I made to people's homes. A real learning curve for me was to figure out how to gracefully invite myself over. I learned to be more direct after one of the elders of the community cut me short by saying "What do you want? Are you saying you want to come over?" I was a little embarrassed until she followed up with "That would be great." My favorite services this year were the intergenerational ones, but although very enjoyable, I did learn a few things not to do. It is not a good idea to volunteer to decorate 200 cookies so that they look like chalices to give out at the end of the service. And although I would certainly do it again, I learned that it is a little stressful keeping an eye on all the flames when you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, Kwanza, Divali and Santa Lucia Day all at once. I have many other good memories, including making everyone "uncomfortable" with a sermon about racism, watching Phyllis wheel an oversized shopping cart around Costco as we shopped for a church reception, and listening to how each of the members of the Standing Committee are going to shrink their carbon footprint. You would not believe some of the tactics that these people have come up with!

So, in addition to everything I have learned, thank you, for these memories that I will continue to look back on with a smile. Thank you also for all of your feedback on my sermons this year. I get just one more chance to share my thoughts with you, so here goes…

III. Sermon

Rev. Elea Kemler once joked about why it is that ministers seem to make people uncomfortable. She said, "It is because we dress in earth-colored clothes, and when we shake hands with people, we hold their hands a second too long and gaze into their faces and say earnestly, 'How are you?'" But, humor aside, she goes on to say,

The real reason people find ministers weird and don't really want us to come to their parties, even if they invite us, is because we are too comfortable with death. Like funeral directors, we don't respect our society's fear of anything related to serious illness and dying. We go striding into hospitals and sick rooms as if the smells of cancer and antiseptic don't make us want to gag, as if it's no big deal to sit down by the bed and hold the dry, skeletal hands of someone who is dying, to watch people gasp out their last breath, to murmur words of comfort to shell- shocked relatives.

Kemler goes on to talk about how challenging it really is for ministers to be comfortable with death, and how she can not always navigate so easily between grief and the joy of living. It's something that I think challenges all of us…this ability to sit with someone's grief and pain, and not become consumed by it or flee from it.

On the spectrum of skills that we are supposed to learn in this life, I'd put this one at the hard end. And the important end. For ministers, yes. But for all of us really. It is for all of us to learn how to sit with another's darkness, so that we may be better companions on life's journey.

I officially embarked on this learning curve two years ago, as a chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital. I now understand why our denomination requires aspiring ministers to spend some time working in a hospital. As a chaplain, visiting patients and families each day, I witnessed so much pain, both physical and emotional. And, especially towards the beginning, it was so hard to know how to respond.

What could I say to alleviate the suffering? How could I provide answers to questions like "why is this happening to me?" How could I cheer someone out of their deep sadness? What I gradually learned over the course of my chaplaincy was not the answers to these questions, but rather that I was asking the wrong questions entirely.

I learned that it was not my job, and not particularly helpful either, to try to "fix" the people I visited. The patients had their doctors and nurses to manage their physical pain. They had their families and friends to lift their spirits and distract them from their physical and emotional pain. What they didn't have, most of them, was someone who would sit with their pain. Not fix it. Sit with it. Stay with it. Accompany them through it. And that was the most valuable thing I could offer them.

The Rabbi at the hospital was the one who really brought this lesson home for me. He listened to us student chaplains agonizing about how we didn't know what to "do" for our patients, and he passed on the advice that he had received as a student. It is a different spin on the advice that we are usually given in life. "Don't just do something," he said, "Stand there."

Don't just do something. Stand there. For me, this has been the most helpful advice I have received in my ministerial training. It gives value to that illusive ministerial quality of being comfortable with death, with sadness. It queries that urge for us to do, to move, to fix, and invites us instead to stand, to sit, to be with.

That being said, I will tell you up front that "standing there" sounds a lot easier than it is! Stand there. We are so hard wired in the face of a problem to "do something" that "standing there" takes an incredible amount of work. In the face of someone's pain it seems much more natural to fluff the pillows, offer advice, problem solve, prescribe drugs, distract with funny stories, or…let's be honest…flee, that "standing there" is a difficult task. Standing there feels uncomfortable, useless, awkward, intrusive even.

But let's think back to those times when it has been us that were in pain. Us that were grieving, sad, or depressed. And what was more comforting in our suffering? Someone who ran around tidying our mess, expounded on the benefits of St. John's Wort, told us what worked so well for their aunt's neighbor's sister? Or someone who stood there? Someone who listened? Someone who did not want to fix us or cheer us or flee from us? But be with us, wherever we were on our journey in that moment. What was more helpful?

I think there are a lot of reasons that we are so hesitant to stand there rather than do something. First, we are so afraid of saying the wrong thing. We feel that in the face of darkness we must be the beacons of light, must channel the voice of Mother Teresa in order to give real comfort. We feel inadequate. Also, we are afraid of our own darkness. If we let another person's darkness into ourselves, will it drown out our own hard-won light? We are afraid that taking on another's feelings as well as our own will be too much for ourselves. And third, we are really just not used to it.

I do not want to underestimate how rare it is to have encounters that go beyond the superficial in our culture. It is not our social programming to delve into the depths of our feelings with one another. Just look at the way we greet one another. How many times have you had the following conversation?

"Hi, how are you?"
"Good, thanks, how are you?"
"Good, thanks, how are you?"

You've all had it, haven't you? What's that about? Why must we stay on the surface of things so much so that we don't even bother to listen to the other person's response? Have you ever given an answer other than "good, thanks" to a casual acquaintance's "how are you?" The rebel in me has done this. The look on their faces is one of pure confusion and mild horror. It hardly matters if you say "I'm terrible, actually. I've been depressed for weeks" or "I'm having the best day of my life and I'm so happy to have someone to share it with!" They don't know what to do with either one! They are so surprised that you might even get another "good thanks, how are you?" out of it!

But honestly this isn't how things have to be. There are other ways that people greet each other that do a lot more to honor how the other person is really feeling. In India, for example, it is the custom to pronam, or touch the palms of the hands together and bow gently until your fingertips touch your forehead, which means roughly "my soul bows to your soul." In the isiZulu language, South Africans greet each other by saying "Sawubona." Sawubona means not just "hello" but "I see you." Sawubona. I see you.

That is what this concept of standing there is really all about. Standing there, rather than busying yourself, no matter how noble the task, shows that you truly see the other person. Even in the dark. And when we think about it in this way, I hope that some of our fears about standing there can be lessened. We do not have to say the right thing in order to truly see someone. It is our presence, rather than our words, that matters. In a pinch, try this one: "I have no idea what to say."

And we do not, in order to see someone, need to take on their pain or darkness as our own. Rather we can see them, and reflect it back to them, to show that we understand where they are, even if we are not there ourselves.

I wouldn't want any of us to be uninvited from any parties or anything, but I do think that standing there with death, with pain, with darkness, is something we can get more used to, if we work on it. We work on this here at church in many different ways. We work on it by making candles of joy and sorrow part of our service every week, a time when we are asked to listen to and ritualize the raw emotions of our fellow church members, both the joys and the sorrows.

We work on it by volunteering for Interfaith Hospitality, where we break bread with families going through a particularly hard time in their lives. Our job as hosts is not to step in and fix their circumstances, but to walk with them on the journey as they do what they need to do to get to a better place.

We work on it by participating in Small Group Ministry, where we are asked to sit quietly and listen deeply as each person checks in at the beginning of the meeting. At the start of the year, as Phyllis explained to the small group facilitators how the process of deep listening works, she said, "It might feel awkward not to respond and ask questions, since that is usually how we relate to each other, but how often to we get to talk and truly feel heard?" She said, "This deep listening is a gift that we are giving each other." She is right. Listening to one another, seeing one another, is a gift. And I do think it makes us better ministers, better companions for the journey.

Writer Margaret Wolff came face to face with death when a car accident nearly ended her life. It left her with little peripheral vision and a limited ability to process and communicate in a linear fashion. After the accident, she often found herself lost in familiar places and stuttering in conversation. But rather than losing hope, Wolff began a new writing project that sustained her through the healing process.

She interviewed fourteen women from Sister Helen Prejean to Olympia Dukakis about their spiritual journeys. Inspired by her near death experience, she was not content to stay at the surface level with these amazing women. She deeply listened, then asked hard questions of them and of herself, and found in them fourteen companions for life's journey. She called her book In Sweet Company, and opened it with this poem of that same title:

We sit together and I tell you things,
Silent, unborn, naked things
That only my God has heard me say.
You do not cluck your tongue at me
Or roll your eyes
Or split my heart into a thousand thousand pieces
With words that have little to do with me.
You do not turn away because you cannot bear to see
Your own unclaimed light shining in my eyes.
You stay with me in the dark.
You urge me into being.
You make room in your heart for my voice.
You rejoice in my joy.
And through it all, you stand unbound
By everything but the still, small Voice within you.
I see my future Self in you
Just enough to risk
Moving beyond the familiar,
Just enough to leave
The familiar in the past where it belongs.
I breathe you in and I breathe you out
In one luxurious and contented sigh.
In sweet company
I am home at last.

~ Margaret Wolff

Friends, the next time someone in our lives is facing a dark time, what will be our response to that darkness? Will we shine our flashlights in to assess and diagnose the problem? Will we take a strong hold and yank them into the light, no matter the glare? Or will we simply reach into that darkness and take their hand, so that they know there is something beyond it? What will our response be to that darkness? Don't just do something. Stand there. In sweet company, I am home at last.

Amen and Blessed Be.