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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

Sunday, May 4, 2014

In the Blink of an Eye

Presented by Guest Preachers Rev. John Manwell and Rev. Phyllis Hubbell with Dayna Edwards, Director of Religious Exploration; Carol Boston, Worship Associate; performances by the Choir and Children's Choir

In the Blink of an Eye

Revs. John Manwell and Phyllis Hubbell


JOHN:  Kahil Gibran wrote:


But I say to you, [joy and sorrow] are inseparable.  Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.


I’m the oldest of fifteen cousins on my father’s side, but I’ve been closest, for many years, to Judy, who’s also the closest in age.  She’s adventurous,  bright, independent. We share a love of New England, and of family systems (especially our own!)  She’s a good friend, a good cousin.  We check in with her a couple of times a month.  We stay with her in her home in Massachusetts twice a year.


This year, she was going to take care of our cat and dog while we went to General Assembly. Then we were going to spend a week together in Maine, our favorite vacation spot.  We would swim in the lake, eat lobster rolls in Freeport, maybe go to the Wyeth Museum in Rockport, kayak at sunset.  We were, that is, until we got an email from her son, two weeks ago. Judy had had a stroke the day before.  They got to her right away, but she was in the hospital, paralyzed on one side.


In the blink of an eye.  


In all my life, I can’t remember hearing that anyone I knew well had had a stroke.  But the day after we heard about Judy’s stroke, we got another e-mail.  Rev. Diane, married to the son of a long time member of our former church, Rev. Diane, who was called to Paint Branch after our year of interim ministry here, Rev. Diane, who had taken up the leadership here on lgbt issues which have been dear to our heart, had had a stroke.


In the blink of an eye, life changes – for us, and for those around us. Sorrow follows joy, joy follows sorrow.  Often they embrace us simultaneously.


        PHYLLIS:  Life is like that.  As human beings, we are at the same time disciplined and strong -- and yet also vulnerable.  Our challenge is to laugh and cry and pray and grow, even knowing that nothing in our lives is certain.


Like folks who enjoy the beauty of living in California, we have to expect times when the earth cracks beneath our feet, for it’s only a question of when the cracks will come and how deep.  We need to be as ready as we can be when they come.  We need a strong yet flexible foundation.  We need roots -- community, a spiritual practice, faith.  We need wings -- strength to seek the gifts that we may find hidden in that crevice, imagination to allow us to envision a new way, love to lift us and hold us and soften our landing wherever it may be.


We may come to realize that while life as we knew it has ended, the ending is also a beginning, as we face a new life, however long or short, which in some way is ours to shape and live.  Though now we may depend on the assistance of others, the way we see ourselves and the way we interact with others remain ours to shape – even if all we can control is a greeting or a smile.  Joy and meaning in life need not be limited to the healthy and able-bodied – nor to the young.  It’s surely the challenge for all of us, if we are so fortunate as to grow old, to do so with grace and joy, even in the face of infirmity and loss.


JOHN:  For all of us, for the whole of our lives, it’s our challenge to listen to what our lives are telling us.  But after our lives have taken a hit, it’s a special challenge, I would call it a spiritual challenge, to use what may be an enforced time of reflection, to listen even more carefully. We might compare it with tuning an instrument, searching for the notes that most resonate with who we now are.


Extending the metaphor, we might even think of ourselves as an orchestra.  if we’ve lost the use of some instruments in our own orchestra, it’s our challenge to compensate by calling on others, as for example a newly deaf or blind person may find ways to develop other senses.  


The French resistance fighter Jacques Lusseyran, somehow carried this ability to amazing lengths.  Blinded in a schoolyard accident, he somehow still fought for his occupied country, survived Buchenwald after he was captured, and found a new life after the war in America.  Along with these stories, his memoir describes how he was able to compensate for his blindness by cultivating his senses of hearing and touch and indeed his spiritual awareness.  He found ways to tell one kind of tree from another, and even to approximate the height of a tree.[1]


All of these adaptations require a will to live.  And all of them require an acceptance that in the face of loss, it’s our challenge to adapt, starting with a fresh look at who we are, what abilities and gifts we still enjoy, and what’s important to us in life.


PHYLLIS:  Determination can be essential.  I think of runners who lost their legs in last year’s Boston Marathon bombing now defiantly running this year’s marathon on prostheses.  I think of the equally amazing sight of Amy Purdy, double amputee after a youthful encounter with meningitis, now competing with incredible skill and grace on Dancing With the Stars.


Less heroic, but closer to home for many of us, I think of the story told by Rachel Remen of a breast cancer survivor who, after a long round of debilitating chemotherapy, invited her friends to celebrate its completion with a party where together they defied  cancer as they danced to the music on the “chemo tape” which had kept her going, week by week, through the treatment.


These stories, I think, tell of lives that took to heart the resolution of people who, in Aretha Franklin’s words, “though the road has been a little rocky,” still remain determined to “climb higher mountains,” trying to get home.


And they remind us that the journey, though never easy, can be easier when we walk it together.  One of the joys of a religious community like this one is the courage and strength we can lend each other along the way.  We can listen.  We can affirm.  We can encourage.  And we can share inspiration, ideas and resources.  In the end, our very presence assures each one of us that we do not walk alone.  We’re joined in a covenant to walk together, as now we  sing our songs no longer isolated, just one voice, but all of our voices together, all of us “helping each other to make it through.”


Sometimes, in the blink of an eye, the life of a whole community is disrupted when its property or its leadership is disrupted.  Fire strikes, or a leader is stricken.  Paint Branch in recent memory has suffered both these events.  Yet life must go on, as you wrestle both with the immediate aftermath and its long-term impact.  I think that in coping with Rev. Diane’s illness, just as when your RE building burned years ago, you will find a way to summon the deep inner strength of this congregation to care for Rev. Diane, and at the same keep your vision and your needs before you.  The road may be rocky indeed, but you will find your way home.


Coming together in community, even in the larger community of other congregations all around us, we no longer see ourselves as isolated victims, but as sharing in the great human journey, in which joy and sorrow are inseparably interwoven.  Seen in this light, our sorrows though no less painful, may become somehow more bearable; and our joys though no more transcendent, feel somehow richer.


JOHN:  In a book called My Grandfather’s Blessings, author and counselor Rachel Remen writes of the lifelong gifts she felt from her close relationship with her immigrant rabbi grandfather even though he died when she was only seven.  Often he cared for her after school, until her parents came home from work, and as they talk about her life, he would call her “Neshume-le,” Hebrew for “beloved little soul.”  Sometimes, to sustain her attention, he would pour for her a thimbleful of sacramental wine, and they would toast using the single Hebrew word, L’Chiam [le CHI yeem].  It meant “to life!” he said.   


“Is it to a happy life, grandpa?” I had asked him once.  He had shaken his head no.  “It is just ‘to life!’” Neshume-le.


    … “Is it like a prayer?” I asked uncertainly.


“Ah no, Neshume-le,” he told me.  “We pray for the things we don’t have.  We already have life.”  . . . [He explained that for] thousands of years all over the world [Jews] have said this same word to each other before drinking wine together.  It was a Jewish tradition.


“Is it written in the Bible, Grandpa?” I asked at last.  


“No, Neshume-le,” he said, “it is written in people’s hearts.”  


Seeing the confusion on my face, he told me that L’Chiam!  meant that no matter what difficulty life brings, no matter how hard or painful or unfair life is, life is holy and worthy of celebration.  “Even the wine is sweet to remind us that life itself is a blessing.”


Remen reflects, looking back, that it is remarkable “that such a toast could be offered for generations by a people for whom life has not been easy.  But perhaps it can only be said by such people, and only those who have lost and suffered can truly understand its power.”


In the end, she says, it is a way of living life, and she has come to see it as less about celebrating life than about choosing life, as her cancer patients so often have.  “The same immutable joy I saw in my grandfather’s eyes is there in them all.”[2]


How better, then, to bring this sermon to a close than to invite you as you reflect on your life, to lift an imaginary glass with me, and offer that ancient Hebrew toast.  L’Chiam!  To life!  To all of your life, and to all of your life as a congregation.   To life!


May we see life as blessing us, even in its pain and suffering, loss and disruption.  Through it all, may we be a blessing to each other, and to all life.  L’Chiam!



[1]Barbara Brown Taylor, “Light Without Sight,” in The Christian Century, April 2, 2014, p. 22; see also “Jacques Lusseyran,” in Wikipedia

[2]Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2000), pp. 77-78.

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