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Sermons at First Parish Church

Indigo Reflections (for a service of Blues Music)

Sunday, November 26, 2006
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Every year early on Thanksgiving morning, when I heft the turkey into the sink to begin the rinsing, stuffing and cooking process, I remember the first Thanksgiving Fran and I hosted in our own home. It was probably ten or twelve years ago now, I think it was the year we had both turned 30, and we had decided we were ready; we were full blown adults, capable of cooking a turkey.

Before that Thanksgiving, I had been around cooking turkeys before but my experience was limited. I had helped my mother. I had basted every so often or checked to see if the timer had popped up, but that Thanksgiving was the first time that either Fran or I had come face to face with the turkey right from the beginning of the cooking process. It was the first time we had encountered the turkey in its most graceless, most pitiable form — sitting in the kitchen sink early on Thanksgiving morning, raw and pale and bald, with its poor legs stuck in those plastic holders.

Fran and I decided to share the job of fishing inside the body of the turkey. We were trying to be very matter of fact, very adult about it, (as if it takes two adults to clean and prepare a store bought turkey.) Fran went first, and pulled out the neck. I was completely horrified but I pretended I wasn’t. Then I reached in and pulled out the little paper package of innards. The wrapper was printed with that much belated warning in large red letters: Caution: Do not leave this packet inside turkey! (I ask you — if you have left the packet inside the turkey, then where are you supposed to find this fairly vital information?) Then we rinsed and stuffed, trying hard to obey the directive printed in bold print in the Joy of Cooking chapter entitled “About Turkeys” not to pack the stuffing in too tightly, lest the turkey explode in the oven.

It is my experience that moments of spiritual enlightenment rarely come at expected or even convenient times. However, I have learned enough to be grateful for such moments whenever they arrive and midway through the stuffing procedure, as I was holding the turkey vertical by its poor ankles so Fran could ease the stuffing in, I had a moment of knowing with great clarity something I had not really known or understood before. For a moment, as I held onto the turkey ankles, I knew, really knew that the pink, bald, pretty hideous turkey in my hands was the very same beautiful, warm, amber, fragrant turkey which would feed and nourish us and our loved ones later in the day. The turkey was the food we would share, like a blessing, along with laughter and conversation as long, peaceful holiday afternoon passed and the sun shone through the living room windows.

For a moment I knew, in a way that I had not known before, that ugliness and beauty are not opposites. Ugliness and beauty, sorrow and joy, emptiness and fullness, love and hate, good and bad are not so separate as we like to believe they are. Gratitude and fury, embarrassment and tenderness, love and loss, grief and grace — they are intertwined and inseparable. This is what it is like to make a turkey. This is what it is like to be fully alive.

On that first turkey cooking morning I said a little prayer to the turkey, a prayer I have repeated every time I have cooked one since, a prayer of gratitude for its life and for the awareness that the turkey had taught me - that joy and sorrow are not separate from each other and that, in time, most ugliness can be transformed into something else, and that life is bittersweet. This is life’s power and its poignancy.

We live in a culture that tends to see sadness as a sign of weakness rather than a sign of humanness. I am always reminded of this when the holiday season begins in earnest, with its manic and relentless cheerfulness. This is a time of year when it is bad for our spirits to pay too much attention to the commercial culture. It is bad for our spirits to pay to much attention to the superficial trappings of our culture because it these trappings have so little to do with the actual experience of our lives and they have so little to do with any of the power or meaning of the holidays we are actually celebrating. I was paging through one of the many catalogues that recently arrived at our house, from Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn I think, and I found myself wishing I could walk into the pictures. I wanted to live inside that pristine, perfectly decorated catalogue house. No baskets of laundry waiting to be folded in the living room and tinker toys spread over the floor and thanksgiving dishes still waiting to be put away in that house, only tasteful wreaths made of pomegranate leaves. But, of course, there are no people in those houses either. There is no actual living occurring in the catalogue houses either and actual living is messy and ambivalent and nuanced and sometimes very sad.

Many of us find our sadness and our grief, both our own and the grief of others uncomfortable and almost inappropriate especially at this time of year. When sad or tragic or confusing things happen many of us tend to get really, really busy, running around trying to fix things that can’t be fixed. To stay still and experience our sadness, to sit through the long days and sleepless nights and simply feel what we feel is hard and frightening. But when we cut ourselves off from our sadness, we cut ourselves off from many other things as well. In grieving our losses, whatever they may be, we often find humility and humor and perspective. We find an ability to count our blessings in the midst of sadness, to live a little more in the moment, to love things a little bit more, to be more compassionate, to hold onto the really important things. The lessons learned in grief are some of the most important human lessons.

Someone recently asked me if I teach a class about learning to live with grief. I don’t teach such a class though once a year I do invite those who are grieving for whatever reasons to gather in my office and share their wisdom with each other about what they are learning about how to live with life’s bittersweetness. But what I probably should have told this person is that one of the best way to learn about living with grief is to listen to the Blues.

One of my colleagues, Rev. Michael McGee, writes about his annual longing for the New Orleans Jazz festival and for the music whose roots “burrow down deep through the many forms of jazz and blues and gospel to the first music played in America by slaves.” McGee writes:

Those first African Americans were deprived of their freedom, their families, their future, their language and culture, but what could not be taken from them was their music. They sang of their sorrows…and they sang of their hopes of a better world in the sweet bye and bye…the early African Americans gave birth to a new soul that has slowly grown and taken wing in our music. Just as they found healing in expressing their suffering in song and melody, so others sought after that same soulful sound as a way to fill a vast spiritual void in our culture. No matter what the color of our skin, we all suffer and need ways to express our pain and to overcome it. But first we have to let ourselves feel it. And then we need to express it. Music can be a depth charge in the soul, bypassing all the filters and prejudices of the mind and going right to the heart of life. Several of our members have told me that when they came to church after a crisis in their lives, such as the loss of someone they loved, it was the music that brought the tears back. Music connects us with our hurting as well as our healing. Listen to the lyrics of Ma Rainey’s blues song, “Traveling Blues”: Trains at the station, I heard the whistle blow, Train’s at the station, I heard the whistle blow, I done bought my ticket but I don’t know where I’ll go. Don’t those lyrics fit all of us? Haven’t we all been at that station? Haven’t we all felt the frustration, despair, and alienation that drives us to escape our past, and yet leaves us in a quandary as to where to go? There’s an especially powerful scene in the book, The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, which tells the story of a young black man in Chicago who is trying to survive a racist society. “I leaves tryin’ to pray, but I cain’t. I thinks and thinks, until I thinks my brain go’n bust, ‘bout how I’m guilty and how I ain’t guilty. I don’t eat nothin’ and I don’t drink nothin’ and cain’t sleep at night. Finally … I starts singin’. I don’t mean to, I didn’t think ‘bout it, just start singin’. I don’t know what it was, some kinda church song, I guess. All I know is I ends up singin’ the blues … and while I’m singin’ them blues I makes up my mind that I ain’t nobody but myself and ain’t nothin’ I can do but let whatever is gonna happen, happen. I made up my mind that I was goin’ back home.” (Michael McGee, sermon: All that Jazz)

The Sufi poet Rumi writes:

Don’t turn your head.
Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That’s where the light enters you.
And don’t believe for a moment that you are healing yourself.

Don’t look away from the broken places, yours or another person’s. Don’t turn your head from the pain that is part of being human. Don’t run away from suffering, yours or another person’s. Because it is in the suffering, in the pain, that is where the light is going to come in. It is in the loss, that the light is going to break through. If we are going to be changed, if we are going to become more open-hearted, more truly loving, more fully alive, it is going to come out of our suffering. And the transformation does not happen alone.

Rumi would say that there is something of holiness here; I believe he would say that it is God shining through the bandaged place; he would probably say that grace heals us when we are unable to heal ourselves. This may be so but I believe that when it comes to the haling of suffering, grace wears a very human face. We bring grace to one another in the midst of pain. We bring grace along with our casseroles and offers of help. We bring grace when we come visit each other in the hospital even though we might be scared of hospitals. We bring it when we come to the funeral, when we sit at someone’s side with the box of Kleenex even though there are other places we would rather be, when, at the coffee hour, we ask about a candle of sorrow someone has lit rather than ignore the words that they have found the courage to speak out loud or pretend all is well when it is not We make grace real through the work of our hands and hearts.

It is very hard to believe that any light is going to break through those bandaged places when we are in the midst of them. I know this. When things are going all wrong at work or we have been laid off, or our children are doing poorly or our friends are dying or our health is failing, it is hard to believe that we are not utterly alone in our suffering, but are in fact in the very good company of those who have also suffered, which includes almost every member of the human race. It is also hard to believe that our suffering can also transform us, if we let it.

Like Rumi, the author Susan Ford Wiltshire who writes about her brother’s life and death from AIDS in the wonderful book, Seasons of Grief and Grace, talks about the light breaking into the broken places, but the image she uses, is as she puts it, “a homely one” and it is one of my favorites. She says I think of a biscuit hot from the oven on Sunday mornings, how we break it open to butter it on both halves. The more surface space, the more honey it will hold. The jagged edges along the break in one’s heart expose more surfaces to pain. They also offer more surfaces to connect with the pain of others. A heart scored by grief is a heart prepared to know and hold the grief of others.

Pain, and the hope of comfort, is the magnet that pulls many of into church Many of us came to church for the first time, I expect, or perhaps even come today because on some level we are wrestling with questions of human suffering in our lives or in the lives of those we love. Why cancer? Why am I lonely? Why does my life feel like a heavy burden to carry sometimes? Our faith tradition doesn’t give simple answers to questions like these; many of us don’t believe that tragedies or illness are God’s will. Many of think they are just that: tragedies, accidents, viruses or bad circumstances. I cannot say in good faith to someone who is pain, I am sure this is happening for a good reason. I don’t know the reason. I do believe in a God of limitless love and compassion who suffers with us and is not the cause of our suffering, but I don’t know why bad things happen.

What I can say is that I believe that people have incredible inner strength to draw upon in times of suffering. I believe that the church community is another source of strength and help. I can say that I believe in resilience and our amazing ability to endure and to heal. I believe in goodness and that it can’t be found everywhere, even in the most horrible of places. I believe in the ability of the human heart to love again after being broken. I believe the question we need to ask in the face of suffering is not why is this happening, but how will I live? How can I find meaning where there seems to be none? How will I make as much room as possible for the light to shine in through the broken places? But to find meaning in our suffering is one of the hardest things we can ever do and this is why we need one another and why we need a place such as church. We need a place to bring our sorrow, our confusion, our grief, and also a place to bring our wisdom, to bring the stories of hard lessons learned, a place to bring our strength and hope and truth telling about what we have endured and survived and we need a place to celebrate when the hard times have passed.

The Blues tells us that there is no shame in having our hearts broken. There is no shame in sorrow or tragedy or accident or loss. This is just a part of the human experience. And it is, in fact, a place of deep power, a place where we can come to learn much that we need to know about strength and forgiveness, healing and gratitude. And I believe that we are strong enough to bear one another’s burdens, Strong enough and resilient enough and open-hearted enough to help each other make meaning of our losses, to hear and respond with love to the broken places. And I believe so deeply that this is in fact, the very heart of the community of faith.

This little story is from a book of meditations from a cancer survivor named Nancy Burke. It is a reminder that we don’t know if advance who will help us bear our suffering. I expect that are more teachers out there than we realize. Burke writes:

When I was very ill, I had to receive weekly intravenous treatments. This went on for almost two years. Somewhere in the middle I lost my courage. It is hard to say which collapsed first, my soul or my veins, but collapse they both did. One day the search for a healthy vein became too painful. I pushed the needle away and cried. The nurse asked to let her introduce me to a young girl of about ten who had lived with cancer all her life and who was also there receiving treatment that day. This child smiled at me and said, “You should have got one of these.” Lifting her T-shirt she showed me the hole that had been cut into her stomach so that she could receive her treatments through a permanent plastic port. Then she put her hand, small and soft in mine and said “You can take it.” And I did. (Nancy Burke, Meditations For Health: Thoughts & Quotations On Healing & Wellness)

Don’t turn your head. Keeping Looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you. And don’t believe for a moment that you’re healing yourself. May we learn to endure the pain of our humanness, the seasons of our sadness, with courage and with help from one another.

grad-rainbow

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Most recently updated 2009-06-06