Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Homily: "Dark of Winter" (Delivered 12-16-12)


“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  This line is a quote from the existentialist author Albert Camus, a man who will never be accused of naïve optimism or of having a sunny disposition brought on by ignorant bliss.  “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  It was a dear friend who introduced me to this quote, a friend who had seen some real depths of winter in her day.  She was a survivor of abuse and a survivor of cancer, but also one of the happiest and most positive people I’ve ever known.  She lives that quote, not naively, not foolishly. 

“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  It is a quote that makes me think about the winter solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year.  As UU minister Mary Wellenmeyer puts it in her “Solstice Meditation,”

Winter arrives at the moment
when the shifting ends and begins –
a moment of pause.

In these latitudes, increasing sun
blesses the coldest days,
and so it is in our hearts,
though our orbits are irregular.
We wobble, too, and grow cold in spirit,
Until the sun begins to brighten.

The winter solstice is held to be spiritually significant for earth-centered, pagan, and mythic religions throughout the northern hemisphere.  Those who religiously observe the winter solstice acknowledge the dark, but they also celebrate the inbreaking of light, that moment when the world has become as dark as it can possibly become, and the light breaks through.  In earth-centered and mythic religions, the winter solstice is often associated with the birth of the sun.  It is no coincidence that in Christianity, a day in December just a few days after the winter solstice was chosen to observe the birth of the messiah.  The sun’s birthday became the birthday of the son of god.  Listen to how the Gospel of John speaks of Jesus coming to the world, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Or, as Camus put it, “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

When I first planned this sermon, I was planning to focus on the spiritual significance of darkness.  Poets, artists, and spiritual practitioners have plumbed the depths of darkness as metaphor and emotion.  But this is a reflection for another day.  There has been more than enough darkness in the world the past few days.  The thing I can do, the thing we can do, the thing we need to do is to keep lighting candles in the darkness, candles to remind us of the invincible summer that lies within, candles to remind us of hope, candles so that if we look around us we will grow aware of the inbreaking of light.

Fred Rogers, who was not only the star of a show for children on PBS but who was also a Presbyterian minister, knew about the importance of seeking out light in the midst of darkness.  He said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”  Like candles in the dark, the helpers are there one hundred to one and one thousand to one.


Listen, I want to speak as a pastor for a moment here, as the spiritual leader of this church.  When our hearts are broken and our souls are shaken, when we grow sick with grieving and sadness for the world, and when we are confronted with unspeakable horror, we may respond as individuals in different ways.  Some of us seek out a place of tenderness and comfort, a safe place to weep and mourn, a place where our raw hearts are not alone and we find a hand to hold onto and a community that will hold us.  Some of us prefer for our anger and outrage to be matched from the pulpit and from the community that surrounds us.  We want action, real action, now, a way to channel the urgency of our love and our loving anger.  And others of us would rather not have anything said at all.  This is a reaction that should not be treated judgmentally and called avoidance or denial.  This reaction comes from a sense that this is what is healthiest; that it is best for the television to be turned off, and that too much attention is a form of unhealthy emotional manipulation and exploitation.  This response comes from the desire not to be retraumatized.

I think that we need to listen to our hearts.  I think that we all have within us some innate wisdom, a sense of what we need and where we need to be and who we need to be with.  I think we can listen to our hearts calling us towards that invincible summer in the midst of the depths of winter, calling us to mourn as a response to grief, or act as a response to grief, or keep calm and carry on as a response to grief.  Listen to your innate wisdom.  Trust that the people around you are also listening to the wisdom from within their hearts.

I want to talk to you a little bit about what I will be doing in the coming weeks and months.  The last time I met with worship leaders in our church, I sketched out my preaching schedule for early 2013.  My sermon title for the first service I lead in January is “The Race to the Bottom.”  I’ll talk about the consequences of living in a society that doesn’t invest wisely in health and education and the cost that this exacts on us.  That sermon idea was especially inspired by conversations with members of this church who work in the field of mental health and who can share stories every day of the enormous human cost of underinvestment and disinvestment in mental health services.

I also have to confess that although I’ve given nearly four hundred sermons, I don’t believe I have ever preached directly on the subject of guns and weapons and the role of violence in American culture.  This is a failure of mine and it is not something I can preach with any integrity because I haven’t yet done the work.  I don’t mean the intellectual work, the work of coming to favor a specific public policy position.  I mean the work of having actually lived my values by having done real work.  That is my pledge and my promise: to use the power of my position and the power of my voice to write to legislators, to connect with organizations working for different laws and trying to change the culture and then doing what these organizations tell me is the most effective thing I can do.  And if that is something you’ll join me in doing, then we’ll find this path of authenticity together.

Beyond mental health services in our communities, which are absolutely necessary, and beyond rational gun policies, which are absolutely necessary, I think there is another part of our need as a society.  We live in a society in which there is too much anger and rage.  There are too many fantasies of cathartic violence.  There is too much isolation, too much disconnect, and too many black holes of pain in which people live, especially youth but adults too.  It is a spiritual disease.

“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  In this mid-December darkness, this tragic time, find in your hearts that light.  Find those who have lit candles around you.  Light candles so that someone else can find their way through the dark.  Keep a vigil for the inbreaking of light, the promise of summer even in the midst of winter.