Call to Worship
The poet Mary Oliver writes,
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
To love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
And, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
These instructions aren’t exactly easy to follow. We’re supposed to love. Okay check. We’re supposed to hold on. And, we’re supposed to let go. Letting go may be the hard part.
It can be hard to let go of anger.
It can be hard to let go of feelings of having been wronged.
It can be hard to let go of worry.
It can be hard to let go of guilt.
It can be really, really hard to let go of something you treasure or someone you love.
Love. Hold on. Let go. Come this morning on a journey of discovery.
Come, let us worship together.
Time for All Ages
During the time with the children, I demonstrated the “monkey box,” a box with a hole big enough to drop a tennis ball into and a hole big enough to stick your hand into, but not so big enough that a fist holding a ball can pass through the hole. I then shared with the children a variation of this Buddhist story. The lesson is that sometimes we can be stubborn and hold on to something even when it isn’t good for us.
At the church auction in November, Jim purchased the right to select a sermon topic for a church service this year. A few weeks after the auction he sent me an email suggesting a fascinating and challenging idea for a sermon. I wrote him back to tell him that his suggestion was great, and then he wrote back, saying, “Here’s another idea. I just saw the movie Life of Pi, and there is a quote at the end about ‘letting go’ that I think would make for a good sermon topic.” Jim, I replied, you don’t need to purchase a sermon to send me great ideas. Great ideas are always welcomed.
The month of February ends with the Oscars and each of the three sermons I give this month will find their inspiration in ideas and concepts that come out of notable films from this past year. This morning’s service is inspired by Life of Pi, one of the films nominated for Best Picture. Following next weekend’s dedication festivities, I will deliver a sermon inspired by two controversial and violent films, Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty, that both received Best Picture nominations. Then, at the end of the month, I’ll be giving a sermon inspired by the film The Hunger Games that wasn’t nominated for any awards but was one of the highest grossing films of 2012.
A few more notes on this month’s worship services: First, you don’t need to have seen any of these films to participate in worship. Second, I’m going to try not to give any spoilers. I don’t want to ruin the movie for you. Third, I’m not recommending these movies. You may decide that you have moral qualms about seeing Zero Dark Thirty or you may think Quentin Tarantino films are exploitative trash. You can still participate fully in the service even if you have no intention of seeing these films. Finally, what I’m modeling here is theological reflection, not film criticism. I’m less interested in critiquing cinematography than I am in reflecting religiously on the ideas, issues, and themes these movies contain.
The movie Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee, is up for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, best director, cinematography, best original score, best original song, and virtually every technical category. Life of Pi was adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Yann Martel. I read the book when it first came out in paperback in 2003; it is one of my favorite novels of all time. The film tells the story of an Indian boy known by the nickname Pi. The son of a zookeeper, Pi is deeply interested in religion and the search for meaning. As a youth he explores the religious traditions of India and takes up the practices of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, weaving the three religions together despite protests from those in his family who tell him that a person can’t just combine religions together. As a teenager, his family decides to move the family zoo to Canada. The family and all the animals set sail across the Pacific Ocean on a large tanker. A destructive storm sinks the ship and Pi finds himself adrift in a life raft in the middle of the ocean with several animals from the zoo, including a full grown Bengal Tiger, as his only companions in the life boat. The movie is a harrowing survival adventure in the mold of Castaway or Robinson Crusoe, and a philosophical exploration of life, nature, truth, and our place in the world. I thought it was a very good movie. It is a rare combination of a film that is both visually impressive and intellectually interesting.
There are a lot of things that one can do with Life of Pi from a religious point of view. Pi’s religious development as a Hindu-Christian-Muslim is fascinating and raises questions about pluralism and hyphenated religious identity. What does it mean to be several religions at once? The film also raises the question of God. At the beginning of the movie Pi claims that his story is a story that will make you believe in God. What a bold claim! And, I would love to talk with people who saw the film and ask them, “So, did Life of Pi make you believe in God?” and, “What do you think about the idea of God that the movie seems to suggest?” Unfortunately, I don’t think I can go any further with this question without spoiling the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it.
So, this morning, I want to focus on a different aspect of the movie, a line of dialogue that appears towards the end of the film when Pi remarks, “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go.”
In the movie itself, there is an awful lot that Pi is forced to let go of. The journey begins when Pi’s family uproots and sets sail for Canada, forcing Pi to say goodbye to his native country of India and also to say goodbye to his first girlfriend for whom he has fallen head-over-heels. And that’s just the beginning. The boat he is on sinks leaving him orphaned and essentially alone in the middle of the ocean, well, alone except for the tiger. Not only is Pi forced to let go of the people he loves and the places he knows, he is also forced to let go in other ways as well. Religiously, Pi’s circumstances require that he let go of the idea that he is in control of his life. His relationship with the tiger, which through a clerical error has accidentally been given the name Richard Parker, requires an additional bit of letting go. No matter how much he would like to be able to communicate with Richard Parker, no matter how much he would like to be able to train him and control his behavior, the tiger is still a tiger.
Pi’s relationship with Richard Parker provides many lessons in letting go. At one point Pi improvises an anchor system to turn the lifeboat perpendicular to the waves in the hopes that seasickness might break Richard Parker’s spirit and allow Pi to become the master of the lifeboat. It doesn’t work. These attempts humble Pi. He is forced to let go of the idea that he is in control.
When it comes to our own lives, none of us face exactly the same situation that Pi faces. We’ve never been shipwrecked with a tiger named Richard Parker. However, in the most general of terms, Pi’s condition and our own might be more similar than at first glance. Like Pi, if we go on living long enough we will all eventually lose the people we love. We will lose our teenage crush, our parents, and our most constant companions. The poet Mary Oliver writes, “There isn’t a place in the world that doesn’t sooner or later drown in the indigos of darkness... Of course nothing stops the cold, black, curved blade from hooking forward – of course loss is the great lesson.” This lesson of loss is also a lesson in transience. Things change. Life moves on. The world spins. We are forced to let go.
In his book Lifelines: Holding On (and Letting Go), Forrest Church poses questions such as, “How can we make peace with our mortality and the death of those we love? How can we accept things that cannot be changed and change the things we can? How can we forgive ourselves and others? How can we gather the courage to overcome our fears?... How is it that some people manage to conquer adversity while others are consumed by it?”
Church writes, “When cast into the depths, to survive we must first let go of things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for things that can. Until we free ourselves from an attachment to false sources of security and let go of our illusions, we will remain in the abyss.”
The Buddhist tradition contains many stories that illustrate the concept of letting go. In fact, the Buddhist concept of non-attachment might very well be thought of as a synonym for a kind of letting go. In one story there are two monks who are traveling along a road when they come to a small river. On the riverbank there is a young woman asking for assistance in order to reach the other shore. One monk tells the woman that he is sorry, but the vows he has taken as monk does not permit him to have contact with women. The other monk picks her up and carries her to the other side of river and sets her down on the opposite shore. Returning, the two monks continue on the road, but the first monk is upset, criticizing and chastising his companion for having broken his vows. Finally the other monk has had enough. He turns to his companion and says to him, “I set the woman down on the riverbank. Why do you insist on continuing to carry her?”
This is a lesson about letting go. It is a lesson about letting go of anger, letting go of judgment, and letting go of self-righteousness. It is also a lesson about letting go of religious teachings and beliefs that get in the way of living rich lives. The Buddhist tradition may be most famous for its teachings about letting go, but it is not the only tradition that contains these lessons.
In the Gospels, there are several stories about Jesus healing the sick on the Sabbath as well as doing other activities that are prohibited on the Sabbath. Each time he is accused by religious scholars who accuse him of breaking the religious rules. Jesus’ response is to say, “Maybe those are rules that you should let go of.”
In the Christian tradition, the Serenity Prayer reminds us of the importance of letting go. The prayer as it was originally penned by Reinhold Niebuhr goes like this, “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things that should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
Generally speaking, it has been my experience that Unitarian Universalists tend to be very, very good at having the courage to change the things that should be changed. We like to take charge. We even like to assume that we are the masters of our own fates.
It is much harder for us to have the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed. Letting go is much harder, especially when what we need to let go of is the idea that we have to be in control.
What is it that you struggle to let go of? Is it the transience of your own life, the transience of the lives of those you love? Is it your own sense of control? Is it something you cling to – anger, jealousy, lack of forgiveness, blame, fear – that you reach into the monkey box to hold on to and so find yourself stuck because you refuse to let go?
Forrest Church says, “Meaning doesn’t emerge from longing for what we lack, things we have lost or likely will never find… We should wish instead for things closer at hand.”
As Pi says, “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.” No matter the sea going vessel you are aboard, no matter the winds or the currents of the seas, no matter the beastliness of your ship’s companions, know that your journey will require some letting go. And know that you are not alone.