Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Garden of Joy

I took a two-month sabbatical from my worship associate position at church* when I realized that our SAP implementation was leaving me no time for family, much less extra-curricular activities. So I went to my first monthly meeting since October last night. It felt good; I think I needed the brief time off for me as well as for the project, as I've been a bit more spiritually uncertain lately anyway.

Also, I'm doing the March 20 service - the theme is "Masks." I have a whole bunch of ideas. It feels good to feel enthusiastic about this again.

(* Church = The Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis; Worship Associate = layperson who helps create and lead services. When the minister is there, we sit up front with him and do some of the readings, lead some of the prayers, read the children's story and the weekly announcements, whatever it helps the minister for us to do. When he takes time off, we actually create and lead entire services. There's a team of about eight of us that serve on the committee.)

In honor of feeling revitalized on the spiritual front, I am posting the first sermon I wrote for UUI, as my "audition" for the worship associate position. Bear in mind that this was written to sound natural when spoken, so you will find colloquialisms and imperfect grammar - that's on purpose. :)

The Garden Of Joy

Suzanne Egbert, August 2003

I was reading a book the other day. This is not unusual, as one of my favorite simple joys is curling up on the couch with a blanket and a good book. But I do have to admit, I was reading a children’s book, and neither of my children were involved at the time. I guess that it’s okay to admit to still liking some children’s books now that Harry Potter has cast his enchantment over the book-loving world. I mean, I knew as many adults as children who were waiting at midnight for the fourth Harry Potter book’s release this summer. Okay, I was one of them. :) And I even got to read it before my son did. I mean, Mom has to read it first to make sure it’s appropriate for the kids, right? Shh... don’t tell him I use that as an excuse. :) And I have to admit that I enjoyed the book as much as he did. But this wasn’t some new and trendy book like Harry Potter. This was one of those that my son considers too “old-fashioned” and “girly” - things like Little Women or Anne of Green Gables. But I find a certain joy in revisiting books like that -- they’re old friends, they’re comfortable, but you can still learn new things from them.

Anyway, I mention all this because the classic I was contentedly curled up re-reading the other day was “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. And I was struck by one particular passage in it. Now, if by some chance you haven’t read this, I don’t think it’s giving any plot away to tell you that there’s a garden involved. :) And to set the scene for you, Colin is a little boy who has been a spoiled, demanding, hysterical invalid all his life because that’s what he was always told that he was supposed to be. Through making friends with Mary, a little orphan girl who is also spoiled and demanding (at least at first), and exploring this secret garden with her, Colin has discovered that he’s not sick after all, and that he can run and play like other boys. And he decides that it is Magic in the garden that has made him better. After all, he says, “When Mary found this garden it looked quite dead... Then something began pushing things up out of the soil and making things out of nothing. One day things weren’t there and another they were... I keep saying to myself, “What is it? What is I? It’s something. It can’t be nothing! I don’t know it’s name so I call it Magic.... Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden -- in all the places. The Magic in this garden has made me stand up and know I am going to live to be a man.” (pp 239-240)

And when Colin finally realizes this, he is so overwhelmed with gratitude that he wants to sing something thankful and joyful, but doesn’t know what to sing. So even though he’s not a churchgoer, he sings the Doxology. And as he is singing, a neighbor woman finds he and Mary in the secret garden. The passage I want to share is a conversation that he and Susan Sowerby, the neighbor, have after he has explained things to her. And I’ll have to apologize, because she speaks in a broad Yorkshire accent, and I speak in -- well, in a south-central Indiana accent, so I’m not sure how this will come out. :)

“ "Do you believe in Magic?" asked Colin… "I do hope you do."

"That I do, lad," she answered. "I never knowed it by that name but what does th' name matter? I warrant they call it a different name i' France an' a different one i' Germany. Th' same thing as set th' seeds swellin' an' th' sun shinin' made thee a well lad an' it's th' Good Thing. It isn't like us poor fools as think it matters if us is called out of our names. Th' Big Good Thing doesn't stop to worrit, bless thee. It goes on makin' worlds by th' million -- worlds like us. Never thee stop believin' in th' Big Good Thing an' knowin' th' world's full of it -- an' call it what tha' likes. Tha' wert singin' to it when I come into th' garden."

"I felt so joyful," said Colin, opening his beautiful strange eyes at her. "Suddenly I felt how different I was -- how strong my arms and legs were, you know -- and how I could dig and stand -- and I jumped up and wanted to shout out something to anything that would listen."

"Th' Magic listened when tha' sung th' Doxology. It would ha' listened to anything tha'd sung. It was th' joy that mattered. Eh! lad, lad -- what's names to th' Joy Maker," and she gave his shoulders a quick soft pat again.”

To me this struck me as the essence of the Third Principle of Unitarian Universalism: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. I mean, talk about acceptance -- look how Susan Sowerby responds to Colin’s enthusiasm. “Do you believe in Magic?” As one who has practiced earth-based religion and has been known to believe in Magic --at least on alternate Thursdays-- I can tell you that you get some pretty strange looks if you ask that question. And you get them from all across the board: religious conservatives think you’re the Devil, while religious liberals just think you’re weird. :) But for the most part, I find that Unitarian Universalists respond in much the same way that Susan did. "I never knowed it by that name but what does th' name matter?” That open-minded and open-hearted response to our individual approaches to spirituality is a gift, and I think that sometimes we don't appreciate just what a gift we have in that Principle. The fact that we can come together to honor that which is good, without getting hung up on what name we choose to call it, whether that name is Magic, or God, or Goddess, or the essence of life, or humanity’s highest potential, or the great unknown, or the spirit of community and fellowship - it’s the Big Good Thing, and it’s what we gather together, here in this church, every Sunday morning, to share. And the fact that we can allow each other the rare and wonderful privilege to call that Big Good Thing whatever we want to - and still accept one another without judgment, no matter what we call it - well, if anything is Magic I think that must be it.

But this Principle has two parts. And at first glance they might almost seem to be mutually exclusive. We accept one another, in all our glorious diversity and plurality - and then we’re supposed to encourage each other to spiritual growth? When sometimes we’re not even sure if we believe in something to be spiritual about? But Susan handles that like a UU too. “Never stop believing in the Big Good Thing, and knowing the world’s full of it - and call it what you like.” You don’t have to sing a hymn: or, in other words, you don’t have to do something that’s traditionally considered a “spiritual activity.” Like there’s some sort of Big Approved Activities List in the sky for spiritual practice. No, she says, “It would have listened to anything you’d sung - it was the joy that mattered. What’s names to the Joy Maker?” This reminds me very much of a teaching in earth-based religion, and in fact it’s in the hymnal in reading 517, “Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold -- all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.” So it seems that my sitting and reading this silly children’s book was a spiritual act, because it brought me joy.

And perhaps that is the best way for us to effect “encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” while still affirming and accepting the diversity of viewpoints among us - by helping each of us more often do that which brings us joy. And that can be something as dramatic and life-shaking as singing our thanks for healing after a long and debilitating illness - or something as simple as watching the beauty of the autumn leaves as they transform into a palette of bold and wonderful colors against the Autumn sky.

So I guess if I am covenanted to encourage you to spiritual growth, I will ask you - when was the last time you felt joy? Have you felt joy lately? Or has your life been too filled with bustle and bother - or, worse yet, apathy, despair, and lifeless duty? Colin decides that he can make the Magic do things for him. He says, “I don’t know how to do it but think that if you keep thinking about it and calling it, perhaps it will come.... Every morning and evening and as often in the daytime as I can remember I am going to say, ‘Magic is in me! Magic is making me well!’” And while you don’t have to call it magic, that IS as good a description of the power of affirmation as any I’ve heard. And that is one way we can help reawaken ourselves when joy is lacking in our lives. To just sit for a moment, and clearly picture in your mind’s eye a time when you felt joy, and clearly sense how alive and awake, or how comfortable and contented, you felt then. And every time you feel overwhelmed with stress, or too apathetic to care, just recall that feeling of joy, and know that if you’ve felt it once, you can feel it again. And keep telling it to yourself, morning and evening and as often in the daytime as you can remember.

Joseph Campbell said, " When you follow your bliss... doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors; and where there wouldn't be a door for anyone else." To come together in the name of whatever each of us calls the Joy-Maker, to accept those differences, to follow your bliss, and to help others follow it too - this is, to me, what it means to follow the third principle of Unitarian Universalism. Thank you for your acceptance, and may you follow your bliss and find your joy. Amen and blessed be.

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