Shelter in Place: A Talk by Penny
Winter is upon us, and it is time to follow the lead of bears and birds and trees. It is time to rest, to give yourself deep care. Here is a talk I gave recently, on how to give yourself this great gift. You can read it or listen to it on You Tube here.
As always, all good wishes to each of you, and a sweet and kind season of Thanksgiving.
Shelter in Place
Sermon for November 21, 2021
Happy New Year! We have reached the end of the liturgical year. Next Sunday we begin the great cycle again, with the first Sunday of Advent. I hope you have your candles ready.I was told to give the sermon that I most need to hear this morning. I hope it will also resonate with you.
November is all around us, reminding us, what is just around the corner. We are weary of the isolation and worry and uncertainty we face, as we hunker down in our practiced island ways. The thin winter light and the long dark nights hurry up our last fall tasks. Winds howl through even our well weather-stripped homes. Heating is more expensive, and we look at our wood pile and try to estimate, how long it might last.
Oh, what a year this has been – Covid, an epidemic of violence, and dysfunction wherever we look, Institutions seem to be falling apart; understaffed and underfunded, they struggle to fulfill their traditional tasks in our society. And our world. The consequences of global warming press upon us, causing such mayhem and distress, and still, our political systems are unable to respond. We struggle just to get our kids into their classrooms, and we argue and balk about when and if to wear masks. Infection rates are rising precipitously again, especially in Wisconsin and our neighbor Minnesota. Store shelves are empty, supply chain problems abound, and the labor market is way out of balance.
There is so much suffering, it breaks our hearts. And we are so tired, more tired than we can even grasp.
So, as I said: Happy New Year! Today, we say goodbye to this cycle, the ancient cycle of the liturgical year. Ordinary Time it is called. Ha! Nothing ordinary about this at all.
What does this mean, Shelter in Place? Or even, what does Shelter mean, in these very difficult times? It is a time to rest and heal. It is a time to let go of the huge tasks as much as we can, and to tend to the small chores of our daily lives, each with its own gift.
It is a time to let your heart and spirit rest and to find your deep grounding in your very being. Like the world around us, it is a time to settle into some form of dormancy, like a seed or a tree or a bear. It is our right, the right of all living beings, to rest and to lie dormant. Settle into that beloved old chair of yours and stretch out your legs and breathe a while. Be home. Feel your deep well being. Really, it is that simple: be home.
And why is this a topic for a sermon, and not a community health lecture? Because in our tradition, and many others, we are told, over and over again, this is precisely where we are able to find the Sacred, the Source of our lives, or, as we have heard so many times: “the still small voice of God” and “the realm of heaven is right at hand”, or even more radically, “the Spirit of the Holy, the Sacred, is actually within you.”
We know our need to stop, to shelter, to restore ourselves. For centuries, our ancestors have recognized our beloved island as a place of healing. So, here we are. Now what?We are kin to Elijah, ferocious prophet. We meet him when he is running for his very life, to escape his enemies who intend to kill him. He has been haranguing those in power for their wretched behavior, their corruption, their treatment of the poor, and most of all, their total disregard for the pleas of that very demanding and jealous Yahweh. And as we watch every day on the news, the powerful do not take well to such speech, such accusation, and such impertinent demands for justice. They have had it with Elijah, and intend to silence him for good.
He runs a long time until he collapses under a bush, telling Yahweh, who has set him up for this prophetic work, he is done. “Please let me die, right here. It doesn’t work. I can’t go on.” An angel comes, wakes him up, gives him some bread and water, and tells him to keep going. And so, like the 100 days of August, he picks himself up and keeps going.
Happily, for Elijah, he finds a cave, crawls in, collapses, and again falls into a deep sleep (the Biblical way of talking about total unconsciousness). Again he is awakened. And then, here is the part of the story we all know: there is lightning, there is earthquake, and Yahweh is not in either. Then there is silence, a silence over all the land, and Elijah can hear the voice and recognize the presence of Yahweh, as Yahweh “passes by.” Elijah, overcome, covers his face with his cloak and falls to the ground. A profound and sacred moment, to be sure.
And by the way: this is not the end of the story! If it were, we would all become contemplative monks in a Cistercian monastery that keeps the rule of silence! No, no…Elijah gets his next set of instructions, and is sent again to go speak truth to power, to take up again his frustrating prophetic assignment of trying to reform the kings. Poor guy.
As you can tell, I love this story! Over the years I’ve found different moments in the story speak to me – the frustration of the political work, his deep wish to get free of Yahweh’s call and how he is to live his life, and then the desperate desire to stop. Sleep. Run away. Get away from these insistent demands, inner and outer. Elijah runs out of energy, and oh, I get it.
So: back to Shelter in Place. How to “do” that, or relax into it, or trust it? Surrender to it? It is a practice, a spiritual practice, for sure. Maybe, it is the essential spiritual practice? There have been moments when it has been life saving for me. But it isn’t easy, and it doesn’t come naturally to someone who lives in this time and place, in our frantic, competitive, fearful, insecure, inhumane world.
But remember the story! The angel taps him on the shoulder and offers him bread and water. It is true.
Here is the problem: Another way to describe this practice is to say, you need “only” let go of the realm of doing, and surrender to the realm of being. You must stop doing! Yet that requires commitment, focus, and discipline. I can only suggest to you, some few things that provide welcoming conditions for this strange process to occur, for it is entirely out of our personal control. Here are some suggestions:
1) Stop. Come to a halt. Try to do that before you are made to stop, by illness or accident or catastrophe. (topic for another talk!) Let yourself fall on your face in the desert, complain if you wish, and finally sleep.
2) Recognize you’ve hit your limit. That you cannot, should not push any more, that day, that week, that season. It is late November. You can stop now.
3) Give up the illusion that you can control things. You can’t. That struggle is a gigantic waste of time and energy. Defeat is necessary.
4) Give up judgments about everything. Look at what is in your life and say to yourself, “Ah, yes, and this too.” And exhale. A wonderful and wise elder of our community said to me once: “Oh, I’ve just decided I don’t need to have opinions about everything.” A brilliant discovery.
5) Let Jesus’ words circulate gently in your mind and heart. It seems to be on his list of top three favorite teachings for us: “The realm of heaven, aka, the realm of being, is right at hand, and within you.” I think it is also his most radical teaching, and one mostly ignored in our church-shaped world.
6) But here is a little more advice, now that you are sheltered gently, settling into some pause, even some silence. Resting. Allowing yourself to exhale and be present.
There is a knock on the door. Something annoying or scary rises in your mind, and it bursts in and hauls you out of your reverie. Damn!
Let me read you a poem by Rumi, a late medieval Persian Sufi mystic. I’ve read it to you before, because it is so perfect: And thanks to Susan for printing it in our bulletin today!
The Guest House
Translated by Coleman Bark
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
There are so many guests. They stream in, one by one, asking for your kindly attention. Greet them, as Rumi says, but don’t tell them where the spare bedroom is! Greet each one; ask it to tell you his story. Wish him well, even bless him for his instruction, and then courteously show him the door.
Ah, and now you see, why I called this a practice, perhaps, the practice, for the healing you long for. This is the “Shining” Rachel spoke of last week. This is where compassion and wisdom reside in your heart. This is your supply of balance and ease. This is how the Beatitudes “make sense.” This has been present for you all along, the realm of God, the indescribable perfectness of the Sacred and all of Creation. Of which you are a part.
Remember now: it all begins with settling into a big comfortable chair, and letting out a long sigh. A blessed dark season, drenched in that Presence, to each of you.