The season of autumn is one of both beauty and loss, as shadows lengthen and our memories of summer recede. Meanwhile, many of us are striving to maintain optimism in the face of significant challenges facing our world. How can we make this a time of hopeful harvest, gathering the spirit we need for the days ahead? Where can hope be found in today’s uncertain times? Today’s message of inspiration weaves together contemporary voices of active hope, including poetry and song to strengthen us for the journey.
Lynn Harrison is a Candidate for Unitarian Universalist ministry. She served as Intern Minister at First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto in 2013-14 and will complete her Master of Divinity studies at Emmanuel College (University of Toronto) in 2015.
Lynn and her family (husband David and two children aged 20 and 17) are members of Neighbourhood UU Congregation in Toronto’s east end. Lynn is also an award-winning singer-songwriter whose music has been heard on CBC Radio’s Vinyl Café, Fresh Air and other programs.
The complete sermon can be read below:
Dr. Neil Douglas-Klotz from “Prayers of the Cosmos”
Dr. Neil Douglas-Klotz studies the teachings of Jesus in their original Aramaic language and translates them in a way that’s in keeping with the spiritual understanding of indigenous people in Jesus’ time and place. According to the mystical traditions of that time, each word had several different meanings simultaneously. It was not meant to have one literal meaning. So, in the King James Version of the Bible, which is translated from Greek, a familiar line reads “Give us this day our daily bread.” But translated from the Aramaic, “Hawvlan lachma d'sunqanan yaomana” could have a wealth of additional meanings, as Douglas-Klotz offers here. - LH
Grant what we need each day in bread and insight:
subsistence for the call of growing life.
Give us the food we need to grow
through each new day,
through each illumination of life's needs.
Let the measure of our need be earthiness:
give all things simple, verdant, passionate.
Produce in us, for us, the possible:
each only-human step toward home lit up.
Help us fulfill what lies within
the circle of our lives: each day we ask
no more, no less.
Animate the earth within us: we then
feel the Wisdom underneath
Generate through us the bread of life:
we hold only what is asked to feed
the next mouth.
Grant what we need each day in bread and insight.
(Neil Douglas-Klotz, Prayers of the Cosmos: Reflections on the Original Meaning of Jesus’s Words (New York: HarperOne, 1990), 1-3, 26)
[Sermon follows the song “We Shall Overcome,” sung during Time With the Children.]
It’s a very interesting word, isn’t it?
On the one hand, it has that transcendent “over”…that lifting up.
And at the same time, it has “come.” Come here, come now. Be present.
It’s no wonder that the song has inspired so many for so long.
That one word seems to bring together both inspiration and groundedness—the heavenly and the earthly, if you will.
It seems to me that people need both, especially in times of trouble.
Of course, “We Shall Overcome” was closely connected tothe African-American spirituals.
Tobacco workers in South Carolina sang it on the picket lines in 1945—long before the civil rights movement of the Sixties.
For many, the song had religious overtones.
We shall overcome someday…someday in the future… which for some people meant a place beyond this world.
But the lyrics don’t actually talk about that.
In the song, the most important movement seems to take place “deep in my heart.”
That immediate and present place is where the “overcoming” begins.
It’s where hope is born.
Next Sunday at this time, I’ll be marching, hopefully, with tens of thousands of people in New York City, who are gathering for the People’s Climate March.
At present count over 100,000 people are expected. It’s set to be the largest environmental action in history.
I’ve received a subsidy to go, from the Canadian Unitarian Council, thanks to an environmental group in Vancouver.
The CUC has asked me to write a short article for its e-newsletter as well.
But those aren’t the reasons I’m going.
I’m going, I think, to overcome my fear of facing climate change directly.
I’m going to overcome my ambivalence about activism…to overcome my tendency to let others do the marching.
And for that matter I’m going to overcome my privileged habit of traveling in comfort.I’ll be taking an overnight bus both Friday night and Sunday. At the march, I know I’ll meet many people more committedand effective at healing this world than I am. I’ll have to get over that.So I can come, and be present.
I wonder, also, whether like so many others today, including many of you, I’m trying to overcome what theologian Walter Brueggemann calls “the new situation of despair.”
In other words, I’m trying to harvest some hope, in the face of challenges that can seem insurmountable.
Economic inequality that perpetuates violence against the earth and its people;
Systems of affluence that lull us into complacency and prevent us from taking action;
The realities of the changing physical earth, which have a frightening momentum all their own…
All of these seem to strike deeply against hope.
These days it’s as if hope itself is an endangered species. Some people say we don’t need hope at all.
Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön has spoken out against hope.
She says, “Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. … We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.”
Now, I love Pema Chödrön, and I see where she’s coming from.
In a moment I’ll come back to the importance of the present moment and how we cultivate our relationship to it.
But I don’t want to let go of “hope” just yet.
In Unitarian Universalism, sometimes we’re nervous about religious-sounding words like “hope” and “faith.”
We’ve distinguished ourselves from people who focus their spiritual energy on a future afterlife.
Unitarians focus on the immediate situation…and how we can love the world now.
That’s hopeful, all by itself.
And interestingly, it’s not so different from what many great spiritual teachers have said.
In the translation of the Lord’s Prayer we heard earlier, there’s a clear focus on the present in the original Aramaic…as well as a sense of love and unity with the earth itself.
As Jesus voiced his desire for what was needed in that present moment more than two thousand years ago,
…he was both clearly aware of the future, and deeply present to the here-and-now.
Consider these two hopeful passages:
"Produce in us, for us, the possible:each only-human step toward home lit up.”
And how about this:
“Animate the earth within us: we then feel the Wisdom underneath supporting all.”
Any person, even an enlightened one, is concerned with the passage of time, and what it will bring.
As physical beings, we need our “hope.” And we find it right here.
The UU 3rd Principle explicitly encourages spiritual growth in our congregations.
Spiritual practice, such as meditation and prayer, allows us to engage with Presence…which has also been called Being or God.
It’s simply a deeper source of power and wisdom than our thinking minds.
It’s interesting to note that the Hebrew word for God can be translated simply as the “I AM” that is, not a person but Presence itself—and something available to all.
Richard Rohr is a Christian monk and teacher.Like Pema Chödrön, he teaches the value of contemplation. He calls this Presence, both “ultimate and intimate.”
I’m reminded again of that word “over-come.” Beyond, and within.
Richard Rohr agrees that in our times, it’s very difficult to maintain a sense of optimism and effectiveness. But he hasn’t given up hope.
In fact, he sees spiritual practice as the key to moving “from an egocentric, fear-based life to a love-based life.”
He speaks of a “great turning”6 taking place today, in which inner transformation leads to outer transformation.
Where social change begins “deep in my heart.”
It seems to me that this is what Unitarian Universalism could be all about.
Beginning with a change “deep in my heart,” we could move outward together, to overcome despair and to become hope in action.
The phrase “The Great Turning” has also been used by longtime environmental activist Joanna Macy.
Along with Chris Johnstone, she’s written a book called “Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy.”
I love that title.
In order to “activate” ourselves and maintain hope for the future, the authors recommend that we start from a place of gratitude…from the simple awareness of things that give us life.
Simple things such as our breath.
Then we’re encouraged to honour our pain—that is, to fully feel it, rather than try to mask it or run from it.
From there, we’re urged to “draw on insights from holistic science and ancient spiritual wisdom, as well as from our own creative imaginations.
[This then] opens us to a new view of what is possible and a new understanding of our power to make a difference.”
Something that’s clear from this approach—and from all spiritual wisdom grounded in the present moment—is that there is always strength to be found.
The source of love and life is always present—even when all “hope” seems to be lost in material terms.
We hear this in the writings of people like Anne Frank, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Viktor Frankl…many others who faced death or great suffering yet continued to love the world…
That is, continued to find it beautiful and meaningful…and continued to give to it, in a loving and generous way.
I’m reminded, too, of people I’ve met in my ministry training, who were dying of terminal illnesses.
I’m thinking especially of one woman who had gradually lost all of her physical abilities through a progressive neurological disease.
Even though she could barely make a sound, she wanted to sing with me, and so we did.
She asked to sing “We Shall Overcome.”
One day after I left her home, I experienced a beautiful synchronicity.
I passed a storefront place of worship called “Overcomers Baptist Church.”
I told her about that of course and she also found it delightful and meaningful.
Our time together was grounded in what Unitarian Rebecca Parker has called “responsive hope”—that is, hope grounded in gratitude for life itself.
The book “Active Hope” has a whole chapter called “Strengthened by Uncertainty.”
Even apart from the uncertainty in the wider world, many of us face profound uncertainty in our personal lives.
We may wonder how to care for loved ones who need us. We may be coming to terms with a difficult diagnosis.We may be facing uncertain job prospects or coping with sudden unemployment.
In our culture, when we’ve been conditioned to seek material security, these situations can be deeply unsettling and even paralyzing.
But any of these circumstances can invite us to turn again to the strength found in the present moment—where we may transform fear into love.
What we need is always right here.Or put another way, a loving response is always possible.
It seems to me that autumn is an especially good time to consider the riches found in uncertainty—like the gold we see emerging now in the turning leaves.
The American poet and farmer Wendell Berry has been working to protect the environment all his life.
Like all great poets, he finds inspiration in the smallest and most common of things.In the poem, “What We Need is Here,” he writes: Geese appear high over us,pass, and the sky closes.
Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way,
clear in the ancient faith: what we need is here.
And we pray,not for new earth or heaven,but to be quiet in heart,and in eye, clear.
What we need is here.
In what is a very hopeful sign, Ontario now has a new Minister of the Environment and Climate Change.
In his very first speech as minister three weeks ago, Glen Murray made the connection between sustainability and spirituality.
He noted that especially since the 1950s, our society has been driven by cognitive knowledge and scientific advancement, while “meaning—which can be expressed as spirituality, as emotions, as faith—has been completely removed from the equation.”
Without the connection to sources of deeper meaning, he said, governments and citizens alike make decisions that are short-sighted and life-denying.
It’s a hopeful sign, I think, that words like meaning and spirituality are moving into the public sphere.
As Unitarians, we can help point to the sources of deeper meaning we all need now—so we can make choices that are wise and courageous…
He was drawing in these remarks on the work of Stewart Walker.
So we can maintain hope and overcome despair.
Before I close, I’d like to share a poem, or really a manifesto, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone.“Active Hope is not wishful thinking. Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued by the Lone Ranger or by some saviour.
Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act.
We belong to this world.
The web of life is calling us forth at this time.We’ve come a long way and are here to play our part. With Active Hope we realize there are adventures in store,strengths to discover and comrades to link arms with. Active Hope is a readiness to engage. Active Hope is a readiness to discover the strengths in ourselves and in others; a readiness to discover the reasons for hope and the occasions for love.
A readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts, our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose,
Our own authority, our love for life, The liveliness of our curiosity,
The unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence, the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead.
None of these can be discovered in an armchair or without risk.” 
Next weekend, I’m sure there will be moments when I wonder: what was I thinking?It might be at 4:00 in the morning on the Friday night bus… Or it might be when I feel over-whelmed, over-stimulated,and over-age at the young people’s worship service where activist Tim de Christopher will be speaking.
He’s the courageous young man who went to jail as a result of non-violent activism…the subject of the documentary “Bidder 70.”
He’s also is, like me, studying to become a UU minister.
Over and above any feelings of inadequacy or guilt or fear Imay have, I hope to be present to the Great Turning that is taking place today.The turning, taking place deep in our hearts…
Right here, and wherever we walk together,in the ongoing journey toward love and justice.
Blessings to you all.
1 Walter Brueggemann, ed. Hope for the World: Mission in a Global Context(Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 7.
2 Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times(Boston: Shambhala, 2000), 41.
3 Neil Douglas-Klotz, Prayers of the Cosmos: Reflections on the Original Meaning of Jesus’s Words (New York: HarperOne, 1990), 1-3, 26.
4 Richard Rohr, Non-Dual Consciousness – God is not Out There”
6 Rohr, The Evolving Journey: The Great Turning
7 Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy (Novato, California: New World Library, 2012), 38.
8 John A. Buehrens & Rebecca Parker, A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 28.
9 The Hon. Glen Murray, Keynote Speaker at “Grey to Green: A Conference on the Economics of Green Infrastructure”, August 26, 2014.
10 Macy & Johnstone, 35.
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