The title of this sermon is, “The One Thing We Can Be Sure Of,” and that one thing we can be sure of is CHANGE. The recent coming of the coronavirus just underscores this perennial fact. School cancelled. The adult national figure skating championships which I and my ice-dancing partner were all set to compete in—called off. St. Patrick’s Day parades called off. March Madness and the rest of the NBA season—cancelled. Stock markets tumbling. The President declaring a national emergency.
Change in our world, change in our families and routines, change in this congregation which this very first non-face-to-face, livestreamed worship service in the history of West Shore demonstrates.
Someone has put it like this: “The future has a way of arriving unannounced.” Isn’t that so? And this can be hard for spiritual beings having a human experience like us, because change is full of uncertainty, and uncertainty is stressful. Uncertainty is threatening.
It’s not safe.
So what can help us to feel safer?
What can help us cope?
That’s what I want to talk about this morning. Facing the future as it arrives unannounced. 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 on wisdom from a master theologian who was profoundly aware of the fragility of human life: The Buddha. Profoundly aware of the human situation, in all its uncertainty.
This is how the Buddha envisioned it. Listen to his parable:
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 of 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. They were eating through it way too quickly.
He almost lost himself in total panic, 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.
Nothing had ever tasted as sweet.
That’s the Buddha’s parable, and he means for it to be medicine for our weary souls. Unrealistic expectations about our lives are like a virus that exploits our weariness and breaks us down even further, and we get so sick, we can’t really live our lives.
How can there be more aliveness, in the life we are given?
How can we live and live and live right up to the very point of dying?
And so the Buddha gives us this odd story that brings together images of a traveler, tigers, a vine, mice, and a strawberry. Inspired spiritual teachers often use parables, because the startling, memorable images used provoke a depth of reflection like no other. It’s like loving the taste of pistachio nuts. I’ll bet a solid part of that love comes from having to crack the shell to get to the nut inside. 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 start with the parable’s initial image of a 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 skating rink; 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 rhythm to all this is generally reliable. And how lucky are we, if this reliability lasts!
It never lasts, though. And to underscore this fact we all say we know very well, the Buddha throws everything at us—or, at our proxy: the man traveling through the mountains.
The Buddha throws tigers at him. The Buddha throws two mice: one white, one black.
Tigers: representing big changes, like the death of a parent or a spouse, or a divorce, or a stock market crash, or the “corona-cancellation” of seemingly everything.
And then the two small mice: representing small changes that nibble away at our lives—small changes that don’t come at you roaring but they are still there in the background, a tiny noise: like how our bodies slowly and steadily age, and the skin that is so elastic in youth gradually, gradually, gradually becomes less so until, in elderhood, you make a skin mountain on your hand and it takes forever to come down again….
Tigers of big change roar into life. You hear the roar, you see the teeth, and you run.
Mice of small change just keep nibbling away. One day you wake up and you just can’t believe you’re 80—or in my case, 53.
But why does the Buddha feel he must throw all this at us? Why does he not provide simple comfort, instead?
Because it is not comfort we truly need. Comfort tends to put people asleep, spiritually-speaking. I love comfort, don’t get me wrong. But growth and awareness often require the opposite of comfort: discomfort, disillusion, death of the ego. The medicine that truly heals usually tastes terrible going down.
Spiritual health is not so much about comfort as it is about hope, and meaning. “To eat bread without hope is still slowly to starve to death.” That’s from writer Pearl S. Buck. Have all the bread you want. All you could ever eat. But if there is not an ability to trust that there’s a larger hope in our living to be either discovered or created, good times and bad—if the basic trust in life is not there—then you’re starving.
It’s just as psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl said: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”
The Buddha wants to give us hope and meaning, in the face of all the tigers and all the mice. In the face of a life that sometimes does have regularity and security—but always, a change is going to come.
So this is the hope and meaning he gives: he puts a strawberry in reach of the traveler, and therefore, in reach of us.
This is the part in the parable where the man has swung himself over the edge of a cliff and is hanging there, tigers above and tigers below. Incredibly, as if tigers weren’t enough, mice come and start nibbling away at the vine, and the man in that moment feels like he must be the unluckiest guy in the world. Painfully vulnerable. In a panic.
These days, some people are mocking those who’ve gone out to Costco or Giant Eagle or elsewhere and raided the entire toilet paper section, and are stockpiling it–so that others of us (like yours truly!) can’t find a stray roll anywhere, and the shelves in the stores are completely and weirdly empty. These mockers are equally incredulous at the way people are stockpiling water, and they say, Why are people hoarding water? The virus isn’t transmitted via water supply and it’s not like the water is going to be turned off. This is insane!!
But I get it. That’s what is so easy to do when you’re caught up in a panic. You stockpile. You panic buy. When you’re hanging on the vine, tiger above and tiger below, mice nibbling away, that’s what you do.
So let us come from a place of compassion, as we live nervously with each other in these extraordinary times. Let us soften the mockery, even as we gently encourage more sane behaviors.
Let us come from a place of courage and generosity, even in this plague year of our Lord, 2020.
But now here comes the hope and meaning. The existence of the strawberry, and the capacity of the man’s attention to be caught.
Yes, yes, the tigers and the mice—they exist. They do. That’s life. There’s so much brokenness in this world which calls for healing and saving. Coronavirus is only the latest reminder of this fact.
But there is so much left to savor as well—so much in our world the beauty of which is undiminished and waits to be appreciated.
The wild strawberry is there for the man 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….
Here’s where I wish I could sit down with each of you personally and ask, What does one of the wild strawberries in your life look like?
For me, a wild strawberry was competing at the Midwestern Adult Sectional Figure Skating Championships just one week ago. It had been the first competition for me in seven years, ever since my old partnership dissolved. What would competition ice feel like, after all these years? Would the judges call us out to perform and, hearing my name over the loudspeaker, I’d just faint dead away, or suddenly forget all the dance steps?
It was great—on ice and off. We went to Springfield, Illinois, and that city was full of surprises. The silliest was the nine-foot high pink elephant sculpture by the side of a main street, wearing shades and sipping out of an equally huge martini glass.
Of course we had to take pictures.
And then the greatest thing: Abraham Lincoln. We saw where he worked at the State Legislature, we saw the house he lived in for 17 years, we saw his law office, we saw his museum and library. I personally feel he is one of the greatest souls in all of history, and for sure our greatest President during a time of greatest peril as a nation. There was a statue of him and his wife Mary just outside his law office, and after Rachel and I had been awarded our gold medals, we went out there and put our medals on them, and took pictures. It made me cry.
All these strawberries, and each are unique.
Yet another, for me, is a memory from 12 years ago, when my mom died unexpectedly, only 66 years old. My feelings about her are so mixed. She was such a hurtful person because of her mental illness, and she had told me so many times that she was sorry, she was sorry—yet she could never help herself. After her death, it became time to sort through her things, looking for important documents and papers as part of tending to her business affairs. At one point I was going through her purse. It was massive and I swear weighed 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, about a million pennies—and amid all this, I found four pictures. Only four: One of my older brother, one of my younger brother, one of my daughter, one of me.
Love never dies. That’s something else the wild strawberry represents for me. The Love that has graced me through my entire life, despite all the hurt, and brings me to this very moment. All the people who have loved me into speech and do that now.
Who are the people who have loved you into this present moment? Hold them close. The meaning of life is to extend the love they gave you to others. To pay that forward in whatever moment and circumstance you happen to be in. That is the meaning of life.
In the midst of coronavirus and everything, practice compassion. Practice kindness—to yourself and to others.
Here is one of these kindnesses to practice, and this takes us to the last part of my message today: the all-important capacity to allow one’s attention to be caught. To make room for that.
I was writing this Friday morning, click-clacking away at my MacBook, sitting cross-legged on my red living-room couch; and at one point, I looked up and out at the world beyond my window. The wind was gusty and howling, and I wasn’t expecting sunlight (since this is Cleveland in wintertime) but sunlight was there, glazing a nearby brick building with glorious light.
Something beautiful got my attention, and I allowed it for a time, until I had to dive back into my work. I am asking if you might allow this sort of thing for yourself, in the uncertain days ahead. To step away periodically from social media and screens of one kind or another and from other sources of angst and anxiety, to simply allow beautiful things to get your attention and feed your soul. Let the certain shape of a tree outside fill you with grace. Let the sound of laughter draw laughter from you. Perhaps let one of the murals that so many of our buildings here in Cleveland feature delight you.
We must not forget to savor what good we still have, despite all that in the world is broken and needs healing.
Despite all the cancellations, what is not cancelled is taking a good walk outdoors.
What is not cancelled is friendship, and conversation.
What is not cancelled is a good movie on Netflix.
What is not cancelled is family.
What is not cancelled is memory.
What is not cancelled is music.
What is not cancelled is a good book.
What is not cancelled is West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church.
One strawberry at a time, our souls can be renewed and strengthened for the work of healing and restoration ahead.
The one thing we can be sure of is change, absolutely.
But the other thing we can be sure of as well is that we have a choice in how to respond.
Shall it be twisting in the wind, full of anxiety, full of fear? Or shall it be trusting that somewhere there is an amazing grace strawberry within reach, and allowing that trust to unfold: being calm enough to see the strawberry, calm enough to reach out for it, calm enough to bite into it, calm enough to taste the pure beautiful sweetness of it.
In the midst of all the uncertainty of life, this is what I will choose.
I’ll pluck that strawberry, and I’ll eat.
Let’s do that together in this uncertain, wild time, you and me.