Sunday, December 13, 2020

"Come and Find the Quiet Center"

Sermon given Sunday, December 13, 2020 for Magic ValleyUnitarian Universalist Fellowship Zoom Worship Service

I am so grateful to be here with you virtually today and look forward to the time when we can be together again in physical space. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts about this month’s theme: stillness.

Like many of us during this year of global pandemic and tremendous change, I have begun to categorize my life into the Before Time and the Now. As some background, I’m a mother of four children (two in college, two still in high school), a wife, a community college English professor, and a mental health advocate.

For many years, the one constant in my life has been chaos. I’m betting more than a few of you can relate. What was your life like in the Before Time?

Then COVID-19 came—and before we get too far, I have a confession to make. The pandemic was definitely all my fault. No, really! Let me explain.

Here’s what my calendar looked like in the last week before everything changed.

On Saturday, March 7, I attended the Depressed Cake Shop fundraiser for Boise’s Interfaith Sanctuary homeless shelter and connected with my dear friend and fellow mental health advocate Valerie Van Gelder and her sister and equally dear friend Jodi Peterson, director of Interfaith Sanctuary. My children and I had baked “depressed Oreos” for the event—sad looking dark chocolate cookies with grey cream cheese frosting filling, but when you bit into them, you saw a rainbow of cheery pinks and blues and yellows, reminding us that mental illness doesn’t define who we are.

That evening, I attended the Idaho Democratic Party’s gala. When I bought my tickets, I had been over the moon at the thought of hearing Mayor Pete, then ecstatic over the prospect of Elizabeth Warren, then when they both cancelled, I was just happy to attend and catch up with good friends. Remember when we could hang out together? took my last groupies that night, and now, it seems like another world to me when I look at those photos. We were all so physically close! None of us was wearing a mask! (It was a wonderful night).

On Sunday, March 8, I attended what would be the last in-person service of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. There were murmurs then about COVID—cases popping up in Seattle and New York—but here in Idaho, nothing seemed out of place just yet.

On Monday, March 9, my 48th birthday, I taught my usual English classes at the College of Western Idaho, and my sweetheart took me out to Rice, one of my favorite Asian restaurants, for what would turn out to be my last supper inside a restaurant in 2020.

On Tuesday, March 10, I hosted a Mayan archaeologist for a guest lecture at the College of Western Idaho for my survey of world mythology students. More than 30 students and community members attended. We passed around a heavy rubber ball used in pok a tok, the traditional Mayan ball game that figures heavily in the Mayan creation story.

A week later, we would learn that someone in the building that night with us had tested positive for COVID 19.

On Wednesday, March 11 my students were beginning to ask questions—and I did not have answers. I blithely told them not to worry—that if we went online, I had years of online teaching experience and would be able to support them during the few weeks we would not be able to attend class together.

That night, I attended what would be my last in person choir rehearsal at BUUF—and realized to my horror that I had accidentally double booked myself for the coming March 15 Sunday services.

And here’s why the pandemic with all its chaos is my fault. I had said yes to playing for BUUF’s choir and to playing the organ at my children’s Mormon church—at exactly the same time! Reverend Sara, the music director, and I began a frantic flurry of emails trying to come up with a new order of service that would allow me to play at one church before racing up the road to the other one. But no matter how we looked at it, the logistics problem seemed insoluble. It looked like I would have to let someone down and accept the consequences of my poor planning.

So in desperation, I prayed to whatever gods may be that somehow I could get out of the mess I had created for myself. And here we are.

On Thursday, March 12, I taught what would be my last in-person classes—the last time I stepped onto CWI’s campus--until the Fall semester of 2020. That night, I attended my son’s last minute choir concert at Northwest Nazarene University. His choir had been chosen from all the high school choirs in the Pacific Northwest to perform at the American Choral Directors Association annual meeting—which had abruptly been cancelled earlier that week because of fears about the pandemic.

So the choir sang for us instead. The director joked (with foresight, it turns out) that it was probably the last time singing like this would be legal for a while. In case you haven’t heard, it turns out choir is pretty much the perfect superspreader event.

The music that night was exquisite, and tears ran down my cheeks as these high school students whose entire world was about to change began with their signature piece, a hymn called “Come and Find the Quiet Center.” We’ll come back to that hymn in a minute, but for now, let’s continue through the last week of my Before Time.

On Friday, March 13—Friday the thirteenth (haha). I learned that my college had decided to start Spring Break early and extend the break for three weeks. That three-week break turned into five months—and while I have returned to campus to teach a few in person classes, wearing a mask and socially distanced, of course, most of my colleagues are still working remotely.

On Saturday, March 14, the big Latter-day Saint mental health conference I had been looking forward to attending, featuring former Brigham Young University quarterback Tanner Mangum, was cancelled. That afternoon, I went to the fabric store and purchased cotton prints and flannel backing to make masks. It was the last time I would set foot in any store other than a grocery store for a while.

And on Sunday, March 15, the gods answered my desperate prayer. I was no longer double booked because everything was cancelled! Everything that day, and the next day, and the next, stretching into months, was cancelled.

What could this mean? At first, we all thought it would be a few weeks. Then we thought, maybe a few months. Then we realized the awful truth: 2020 was cancelled.

And just like that, I had the one thing I could never find enough of: time.

So I sewed masks. Like many of you, I baked—a lot—and thought about planting my garden. I developed a daily practice of taking long solitary walks around my neighborhood.

During my walks, the hymn my son’s choir sang would often fill my mind. I want to share the words with you.

“Come and Find the Quiet Center” by Shirley Erena Murray

Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead.
Find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed.
Clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes that we can see
all the things that really matter, be at peace and simply be.

And I wondered, What is so hard about stillness anyway? Why is it so hard to “be at peace and simply be”? The answer is not an easy one. In the sudden enforced quiet, we—all of us—have been forced to face the truth of our own mortality. We might get sick and die, or we might not. Our loved ones might get sick and die, or they might not. But we all have to face the truth: none of us gets out of here alive. We are powerless over life and death.

Some people turn to religion in times like these. We may think of Jesus calming the wind, the waves, and his disciples’ fears with a simple command: “Peace, be still.” Or we may think of the Biblical seventh day, the Sabbath, a day created specifically for rest and contemplation of the Divine.

Or our thoughts may turn to the Jewish tradition, especially during this week of Hanukkah. Speaking of another sacred day, Yom Kippur, the “Sabbath of Sabbaths” and holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Rabbi Marc Margolius of the West End Synagogue in New York City wrote that stillness is “the quintessence of Yom Kippur itself: the necessity for human beings to be, rather than to do; the necessity to be still, rather than to speak; the necessity to seek out the authentic and eternal, not the artificial or temporal.”

Rabbi Margolius further observes that “Some of Judaism’s most powerful religious metaphors are internal; they invite us to seek God not atop a mountain or in heaven, but within ourselves.”

Have you climbed mountains seeking something? I have. But these days, I am spending more time seeking God within myself.

In yoga, the hardest posture for me is savasana, corpse pose, where we lie silent and still on our mats. It’s also the most essential-part of my daily practice: to quiet my busy brain, to say “Peace: Be Still.” I have found that as I focus on being instead of thinking or doing, I can feel myself connected to the world in marvelous ways, experiencing what it means to exist in the glorious eternal now.

This time of enforced quiet has definitely not been all fun and games though. In the stillness, I learned some hard things about myself. I learned first that I was tired. We are all so tired. Living with mundane, quotidian existential dread has a way of doing that to us. From pandemics to politics, our poor limbic systems are stuck in panic mode.

I don’t know about you, but I’m taking antidepressants and doing tons of telehealth therapy to cope with even little things like grocery shopping right now. As a mental health advocate, I know there’s no shame in this. These times are hard, and I’m grateful that there is help, and that I can access it.

But I’m also focusing on my breath. At its simplest, breathing is the essence of existence. And as we breathe, we can “Clear the chaos and the clutter” so that we can see what really matters to us. As I have seen what really matters to me, I have experienced a profound sense of gratitude.

In the stillness, the second hard lesson I learned was that any sense of control is an illusion. In the Before Time, I thought that I was the master of my own fate. I tricked myself with Outlook calendars and social media and other tools of modern existence into believing that I could control what happened to me or to the people I loved. I can’t. You can’t. To “find the frame where we are freed,” we must first free ourselves from this illusion of control.

On my daily walks last spring, I began to develop what the poet Amy Clampitt called “a limitless interiority” where anything seemed possible. I watched ducklings grow from balls of yellow fuzz to mature confident adults. I watched buds swell on tree branches and slowly unfold their petals to the sun. Every day, a few more blossoms opened until the trees were splashes of pink and white against the blue spring sky. Those buds were hope. I watched as the blossoms faded, the trees greened then turned to gold. The leaves carpeted the sidewalks, and still we waited.

In the traditional Christian liturgical calendar, December is a time of waiting. During advent, Christians wait each year for the birth of their god in human form.

(Fun and slightly sacrilegious fact from Life Hacker Joel Cunningham—if you buy an advent calendar the day after Christmas this year, it will count down the days to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s inauguration). 

But seriously, when you think about it, isn’t hope for a better world, in its simplest form, at the heart of religion? We are called, all of us, in this season of waiting, of hope, of light, to “Come and find our quiet center.”

My children and my students keep asking me when we will return to normal. I have good tidings for them—and for you: We won’t.

In mental health advocacy, we have a saying: “Normal is a setting on the washing machine.” If we’re lucky, we’ll emerge from this time of stillness with something important to say and do. When our eyes are opened to the things that really matter—to social justice and equity for our Black and Brown brothers and sisters, to stewardship for our fragile earth, to the future we want to leave our children and their children—we will “find the room for hope to enter.”

But most importantly, if we’ve learned the lessons of these challenging times, we’ll enter our new world, whatever it looks like, secure in the knowledge of how to return to our quiet centers, “to be at peace, and simply be.” That peace is my wish for myself and for all of you, in this season of waiting, of stillness, of hope, joy, and light.

Closing Song

Bothell High School "Come and Find the Quiet Center" arranged by Kirk Marcy

Or my son’s Sonous choir directed by Seth McMullen: at minute marker 28:10-30:35 

Reading: From “A Silence” by Amy Clampitt

past parentage or gender
beyond sung vocables
the slipped-between
the so infinitesimal
fault line
a limitless interiority

beyond the woven
unicorn    the maiden
(man-carved    worm-eaten)
God at her hip
the untransfigured
bluebell and primrose
growing wild     a strawberry
chagrin     night terrors
past the earthlit
unearthly masquerade

(we shall be changed)

a silence opens


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