As summer begins, many of us may find ourselves in times of transition. In between seasons, school terms, decisions or stages of life. These “in-between” times can offer rich opportunities for growth. Today, Rev. Lynn Harrison explores with us the perennial question, “What's Next?”
The complete sermon can be read below:
This story comes to us as many good stories do…passed down from minister to minister, its original source unknown (at least to me).
It started at the end of a Sunday morning service in an Ontario church.
The choir began the recessional.
Singing joyously, they marched in perfect unison up the center aisle to the back of the church.
The last singer in the women's section was wearing a new pair of shoes with high heels – the kind that were thin enough to slip through any grating.
And in the aisle was a grating that covered the hot air register.
Without a thought for her heels, the woman sang and marched.
And sure enough, the heel of one shoe sank right through a hole in the register grate.
Instantly she realized her predicament.
She knew she couldn't hold up the whole recessional while she stopped to pull out her heel.
So she did the next best thing in the emergency.
Without missing a step she slipped her foot out of her shoe and continued up the aisle.
There wasn't a break in the recessional.
Everything moved like clockwork.
Then, the last man in the men's section noted the situation and without losing a beat, he reached down and picked up the young woman’s shoe.
The entire grate came with it.
Startled but still singing, the man continued up the aisle bearing in his hand one grate attached to one shoe.
Never a break in the recessional.
Everything moving like clockwork…
And then, perfectly in tune and in time to the music…
The minister stepped into the open register.
So often in life, we think we know “what’s next.”
And we take our steps forward, on the assumption that we know what will happen and we’re doing the best thing.
But, as this story illustrates, very often we’re unaware of how events will actually unfold…and, indeed, how our actions will play a role in them.
It’s worthwhile to reflect on this, especially perhaps at times of transition.
When we are en route from one place to another, say from one place in the church to another…
Or when we are in-between jobs, or school years.
When we are waiting for “the next big thing” to happen.
As this summer begins, many of us may find ourselves in times of transition.
In between seasons, decisions, or stages of life.
“This is where we find ourselves…” no matter what age we are.
Whether they are marked by hope and anticipation…
Or by a sense of anxiety…
These “in-between” times can offer rich opportunities for growth.
It’s worthwhile to notice how often we ask the question “What’s next?”
And just as John Lennon said “life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans…”
The answer to the question “What’s next?” may be less important than how we live with the question.
The Australian poet and cartoonist Michael Leunig offers us this prayer:
God give us rain when we expect sun.
Give us music when we expect trouble.
Give us tears when we expect breakfast.
Give us dreams when we expect a storm.
Give us a stray dog when we expect congratulations.
God play with us, turn us sideways and around.
Michael Leunig is noted for both his deep wisdom and his slightly wacky sense of humour!
This poem, though very simple, actually gives us much to think about.
At first glance it’s the unexpected twists and turns that provide its comic appeal.
I, personally, would always choose music over trouble…
Though I might not go for the stray dog turning up!
For me though, apart from the entertaining surprises, there’s a deeper insight to be found…
And that is, that God or Life does indeed “play with us.”
Sometimes we’re happy to play…it’s enjoyable and fun…
And other times we feel “played with”…in ways that might be frightening or painful.
We know that life’s twists and turns can lead to sorrow as often as they lead to joy.
Perhaps that’s why we’re so eager to know “what’s next”…to anticipate the ending of the story…to skip to the end of whatever narrative is on our minds at the moment…
We want to know “what’s next”…
So we feel we have some sort of control.
As poets and sages have reminded us for centuries, however, control is not the point…at least not where spiritual growth is concerned.
As human beings, in an advanced culture known for complex achievements, we’re all about looking ahead to the future and taking the appropriate steps.
Most of us, I think it’s fair to say, strive to lead lives of responsibility and order. And of course that serves us well.
But life has a way of surprising us, doesn’t it?
I’m sure each one of us can think of an experience from our own life, or that of someone close to us, when we thought we knew what was going to happen next….
And when something completely different did.
It’s the basis of all good storytelling: “A funny thing happened on the way to the…”
It’s the surprise ending of every good joke.
When the unexpected happens to us, though, we might think that the joke’s on us…
Especially if the unexpected event is painful…or when we were sure we knew what the best “next thing” would be.
Sometimes, too, it’s not immediately clear whether the outcome of an event is good or bad.
In his book “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose,” the contemporary wisdom teacher Eckhart Tolle re-tells the story of the wise man who won an expensive car in a lottery.
“His family and friends were very happy for him and came to celebrate.
‘Isn’t it great?’ they said. ‘You are so lucky.”
The man smiled and said, “Maybe.”
For a few weeks he enjoyed driving the car.
Then one day another driver crashed into his new car at an intersection and he ended up in hospital, with multiple injuries.
His family and friends came to see him and said, ‘That was really unfortunate.’
Again the man smiled and said, ‘Maybe.’
While he was still in hospital, one night there was a landslide and his house fell into the sea.
Again his friends came the next day and said, ‘Weren’t you lucky to have been here in hospital.’
Again he said, ‘Maybe’.”
According to Eckhart Tolle, the wise man’s ‘maybe’ signifies a refusal to judge anything that happens.
Instead of judging what is, he accepts it and so enters into conscious alignment with [a] higher order.
When I heard that story, it reminded me of Henry Martyn Cheavens, a teacher, who fought in the American Civil War in 1861.
He was wounded in battle…so badly that it took him ten months to recover.
But a local Missouri family took him in during that time, hiding him in their attic so he wouldn’t have to return to war.
After the Civil War ended, he returned to Boone County, where he married Sallie, one of the daughters in the family that had provided him sanctuary.
If it were not for that battleground injury, my great-great grandparents would not have met, and I wouldn’t be here today.
I’m sure many of you have stories like that…in your own life, or that of your ancestors.
And still, there are many times in life—for me, I’d say every single day!—when I’m tempted to rush to judgment.
When I want to know the end of the story in advance.
But as we grow in spiritual maturity, we may develop a capacity to trust whatever life has in store for us.
To have faith in our capacity to meet the challenges we can’t yet see…
And to know that there may be blessings held within them that are yet to be revealed.
In traditional religious language, this attitude might be called “faith”…
But it also might be framed as equanimity…peace of mind…or simply resilience.
The ancient Christian text called the Gospel of John includes the simple teaching that “Perfect love casts out fear.”
That idea comes up again and again, in wisdom old and new, from both religious and secular sources.
The contemporary Buddhist teacher Tara Brach puts it this way:
“The great gift of a spiritual path is coming to trust that you can find a way to true refuge.
You realize that you can start right where you are, in the midst of your life, and find peace in any circumstance.
Even at those moments when the ground shakes terribly beneath you—when there’s a loss that will alter your life forever—you can still trust that you will find your way home.
This is possible because you’ve touched the timeless love and awareness that are intrinsic to who you are.”
This is where we find ourselves.
This is where we find ourselves.
This is where we find ourselves.
Where we find the heart of peace…
The still small voice…
The True Self.
In 1903, an aspiring young writer named Franz Kappus wrote to a poet he admired, for advice on both life and career.
Rainer Maria Rilke generously wrote back several letters, one of which contained this famous advice.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,
Like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
In modern-day Unitarian Universalism, we affirm in our 3rd Principle, the “encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”
To my mind, this means we are encouraged to grow toward that deeper peace…that equanimity…or Love with a capital “L” that can meet all of life without fear.
That can “live everything.”
I think all of us know that we live, now, in deeply uncertain times.
Quite apart from the uncertainties of our personal lives…
Our career plans…our health status…our relationships…
All of which pose questions that we long to have answered once-and-for-all…
We all live with the deep ambiguities of our times.
The questions about this planet’s future…which at times may seem overwhelming.
If ever there was a time to learn to “live the questions,” this may be it.
And so, because this is where we find ourselves…
May we find, in ourselves, a deeper capacity to respond with love and compassion, rather than cynicism, hatred or fear.
As we move into the Mystery that is our life…
May we tap into the Source of all strength…
In the moment-by-moment unfolding of the story that has no end.
Thank you for listening, and I welcome your reflections.
 Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (New York: Plume, 2006), 197.
 1 John 4:18
 Tara Brach, True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart.
 Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Stephen Mitchell trans. (New York: Random House, 1984), 34.
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