UNITY OF VANCOUVER
3814 FRANKLIN ST. VANCOUVER, WASHINGTON 98660 360-696-0996
Living in the Midst of Mystery
Reverend Bernadette Voorhees
June 25, 2021
All Rights Reserved
Close your eyelids, look up into the darkness, inhale deeply and exhale, relaxing completely. If you have any feelings or sensations in your physical body, just allow them to happen. Recognize them. Accept them and watch them leave. Inhale and exhale. Now begin to be aware of the outside light that is filtering through your eyelids and focus this light into your chest. Now imagine that a small candle flame is burning warmly, within your spiritual heart expanding more and more and enlarging with every breath. As the breath expands let it fill your body with light, as you focus your attention on your chest. Now feel butterflies of light fluttering from your center outward. Visualize several angel-like butterflies quivering around your being, notice that more and more are sent out from this white light center core that you opened. Watch them as they swarm around your body, giving your body gentle kisses of love and light. As each kiss against your skin is received from the transparent, lighted butterflies, you find that you are being energized.
They help you fill your entire body with light, and you are now consumed totally in white, radiant light. Watch the butterflies dart in and out of you as they pick up any piece of dark, shadowy negativity and fly away with them to the sun where they are burned and transformed into pure energy. Feel the butterflies expressing all the love you desire in the silence of prayer.
It’s now time to come back into conscious awareness. Allow your butterflies of light and love to fly back into your beautiful heart center and know that you can call them from this light source at any time. The light comes directly from you as it does from everyone. One direct light from you, for you. The light of love. Now begin to feel your toes and your feet and your legs, your stomach and back, chest and head, arms, and hands. Inhale a deep cleansing breath and with your exhalation become more and more awake. Inhale again and stretch as you exhale. If you like, yawn as you stretch and when you are ready open your eyes and find yourself wide awake. AMEN.
"LIVING IN THE MIDST OF MYSTERY"
The inspiration for this sermon was a conversation I had with a young man a couple of years ago who gave me permission to share his story. In July of 1999, his father died of a sudden heart attack. A few months later, his mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and by September of that year, she too had passed away. Amid such sudden and profound loss, grief, tragedy, and pain he said that he felt an intense desire, a longing, a real need for a religious answer. He wanted to bolster his faith so that he could hold onto and use it to anchor his life until he could ride out the storm. But he said that the religious comments offered to him by his Baptist minister and friends just didn’t sooth his soul and weren’t healing for him. Comments like: “God does everything for a reason. You may not be able to see it now, but you have to just trust. God needed another angel; at least they’re in a better place. God has given you this trouble because he knows you are strong enough to handle it. This is a part of God’s plan for you.” He said, “These comments left me cold and angry.”
We have all heard and even possibly said these kinds of comments. For some people they do seem to offer comfort and assurance. I personally choose to be comforted by those kinds of thoughts and words. But even if they failed to give me comfort, I would still be comforted knowing that they are being offered to me in sincere compassion and probably by someone who has also lost a loved one and knows how much that hurts and haunts. Someone who knows what a gaping hole the death of a loved one can leave in your life.
A few years back, a Unity Minister friend of mine was facing a scary operation and a potentially devastating diagnosis – even if the surgery was successful, she still might be paralyzed. She told me that she felt envious of people who had a simple, unquestioning faith in God and could accept anything as God’s Will, even the really bad stuff. She said that she felt overwhelmed by the stress and anxiety of trying to make the right choices and facing such a challenge ‘in front of her congregation.’ She said, “I try to pray and feel like I am holding an empty bag.” I think that would be an awful way feel, don’t you?
Unity students don’t usually think in terms of suffering and hardship as being a part of God’s Plan or God’s Will for our lives. But for many Christians, the idea that suffering and pain is a part of God’s Plan for their life is a comfortable idea. As they look at the dominant symbol of their faith, Jesus on the cross, the thinking goes, “If it was part of God’s plan for his own son to suffer and die, then surely my own suffering is part of his plan as well.” In Unity we reject this idea. Our focus isn’t on the suffering of crucifixion in place of that way of thinking we focus on the joy of resurrection and the realization that “With God all things are possible.” There is a third way of looking at life. Some people face hardship, loss, pain with an attitude of “that’s just life or that’s fate.” With a stoic attitude, they forge forward, and life goes on. My sister thought like this. She believed that it wasn’t anyone’s fault that she got cancer and died in six weeks. It was just her fate and she accepted it. But for those of us left behind who didn’t share in her viewpoint and had to make dramatic adjustments to continue to live around the hole her passing left we needed an active and spiritually understanding Faith Response to the hole her passing left in our lives. A faith response is more than a belief or mindset; it’s something that you can do in response to life’s upheavals to anchor and heal yourself. I want to offer three suggestions this morning:
1st: Move in the direction of things that restore your soul and away from things that are destructive to your soul.
2nd: Move towards community and away from isolation.
3rd: Move towards an embrace of mystery and away from the need to control.
Now let’s look briefly at each of these actions.
1. Move in the direction of things that restore your soul and move away from things that are destructive to your soul. I once had the privilege of visiting a man dying from cancer several times in the last days of his life. He had fought the disease for a good long while and made the conscious decision to stop fighting. Desiring to die at home and in the company of his loved ones, he began to gather around him everything and everyone that gave him joy and that brought light into his life. He surrounded himself with all sorts of things that held memories and created a poster, on which visitors could write messages. Every time I visited, I was surprised that more pictures, more books, more sentimental items, had found their way into his room and how many more pictures and messages were on the poster. He was embracing the things that restored his soul. As his energy left his physical body it felt like it went into the people, the pictures, and the stuff. There was a sense of the sacramental in this – you could see the quality of his life and were filled with joy because of it. He had lived well! Over my many years as a Unity Minister I have observed that those who fare the best in times of loss and pain are those people who gather around them people, things and practices that help to restore them. It can be a pet, a plant, a relationship, a hobby, an activity, a piece of music or art, a craft, a spiritual practice, an airplane – but whatever it is, I find that the people who face grief the best are those who have made space in their lives for these sorts of things. Let me be very clear. I’m not talking about replacing your loss or distracting yourself. This is about strengthening yourself around that place of emptiness. Our own life force becomes more resilient when we move towards things that restore our soul.
I think that’s why some people who face grief, loss and hardship turn to addictive behavior like drugs, alcohol, work, sex or some other destructive or risky behavior. A hole has opened, in their life and energy body and they want very badly for something to fill it and make them forget it. But the secret isn’t filling the empty space. And the secret isn’t forgetting it. The secret is having a larger wholeness around that empty, grieving space.
I do want to give you one important warning though and it is that anything can be lost. In my experience, the people who manage the best are the ones who surround themselves with friends, family, pets, plants, arts, crafts & activities that restore the soul – before the soul needs to be restored - and who do this even though they know none of these things are guaranteed to last. Loved ones may pass away; friendships may sour; we may become too immobile, arthritic, or weak to do the life-enhancing activities we love; our material treasures may be destroyed. We hear of athletes who suffer career-ending injuries, artists who lose their vision, musicians who lose their hearing.
I think one key is finding diversity. Like the character Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings”, there is a danger in having only one ‘Precious’, one thing that makes you whole. I think another key is finding restoration in things that are more difficult to lose. Although faith can be lost, I imagine that in the face of loss the ability of a person to say, “The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” “Hail Mary full of grace,” “Precious Lord, take my hand,” or “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound” is a kind of restoration. What hymn, what poem, what prayer, what song carries you?
2. Move towards community and away from isolation. In the Bible, the story of Job is probably the most poignant story of loss. You know the tale: a fallen angel tempts God to test the faithfulness of a man named Job, a man with wealth, success, family, and robust health. Systematically, God sends famine to his fields, levels his home, kills his family and afflicts Job with horrible disease. What many people don’t know about Job is that a good deal of the story deals not with the relationship between Job and God, but with the relationship between Job and his friends. Job's friends leave him hanging. One friend says he is bad luck. Another friend advises him to figure what he has done to incur God’s wrath and repent for it. A third friend sees the devastation and sides with God, shrugging “Well, God is just.” Job’s ‘friends’ treat him like bad news. Job responds to his friends’ unsatisfactory advice by calling them on it. “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes. Your defenses are defenses of clay.” It is the type of thing we might be tempted to snap back at-lame sayings that don’t give us comfort. “Don’t give me those proverbs of ashes!”
“Proverbs of Ashes” is also the title of a book by Rebecca Parker and Rita Brock. It is a book about what really saves us amid hardship and suffering. These two women argue that conventional Christianity promises salvation through the experience of violence, suffering and the isolation that comes from being a victim. The central image of this, again, is Jesus on the cross, suffering, mocked and forsaken. Brock and Parker argue against this theory of salvation, suggesting instead that salvation is found in the community that comes together in a Faith Response to violence and isolation. Brock and Parker write about their own firsthand experience with abuse, depression, oppression, and violence and about the saving communities they have found or formed.
1. Move towards those things that restore your soul and away from those that destroy the soul.
2. Move towards community and away from isolation.
3. And move towards mystery and away from control. As a Unity Minister I have often been asked to officiate at events with other ministers. And one of the things that was most shocking to me is the practice of making what are called “providential pronouncements” about the affairs of the world. If you hit a home run, it was God who gave you the strength. If you won an election or got a promotion, God was blessing you. (And if you struck out, lost, or got fired, it was part of God’s greater plan for your life.) These kind of ‘providential pronouncements’ are common. If you were in a car accident and lived, God protected you. If you were sick and got better, God healed you. If you didn’t survive, or didn’t recover, God was still acting; it was part of God’s plan. At a Baptist funeral I co-officiated, there was supposed to be a pronouncement about whether the person was saved or not. The baptist minister went first and then I was expected to offer a similar pronouncement. This was something that I was uncomfortable doing. So, what I could say, I pondered, I struggled and finally it came to me, to say, “God’s ways are a mystery. God works in mysterious ways. How mysterious are the ways of the Lord.” And although that sounds a little contrived, I was serious.
As writer and theologian Roy Phillips says, "We Are living in the midst of mystery." and our response to that fact should be one of awe, reverence, and trust. We’re living in the midst of mystery and God works in mysterious ways that we may never fully understand and certainly not control. In times of grief, loss, pain, we are better served to embrace the mystery rather than bristle at it and think that we can control it and manipulate it. So, to summarize:
1. Find and practice what restores your soul, and do not practice what destroys it.
2. Move towards community and away from isolation.
3. And move towards mystery and away from control. And stand in awe of the fact that we are living in the midst of mystery, for it would be less if we could control it.
These words from the Diary of Anne Frank written by a young girl seem to capture the heart of the spiritual perspective a dynamic and understanding faith response to the ultimate tough times of human life that I want to convey to you in this lesson. "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually turned into a wilderness; I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us, too, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come out right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out."
May these ideas I have shared today, be helpful and healing to you in times of grief and in the midst of death. Or may they be forgotten, for something else you are guided to that works better for you. So may it be.
What do you think?
© Unity of Vancouver, 2004 All Rights Reserved.