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Sermons at First Parish Church

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The World Shining: A Post-Sabbatical Sermon

Sunday, June 1, 2008
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

The story I read to the children this morning, Across the Big Blue Sea by Jakki Wood was a book I was reading to my almost five year olds, Caleb and Isabel, at least once a day for the first month or so of the sabbatical. You probably weren’t close enough to see the pictures, but on each page, the tiny toy boat that the little boy named Tom pushed off the coast in California is pictured floating on top of the ocean. Sometimes the boat is perched on the crest of a huge wave or being tossed about by a storm; on some pages the boat so small you can barely see it. And underneath the surface of the ocean there are all sorts of sea creatures and plant life, which change as the boat sails around the world. At some point during the multitude of readings, Caleb and Isabel caught on that there were many, many more words on each page than just the basic story line I had been reading. Unfortunately for me, they quickly caught on that the real story was in fact underneath the ocean and demanded that I read the long litany of marine life on each page: mussels, limpets, urchins, otters, sea kelp, thresher sharks, brittle star, manta ray, sargassum weed, leatherback turtle. All of these had to be named before we could turn the page.

My personal method for trying to cope with the deadliness of reading the same children’s book four million times is to try to find something new, some small thing I have never noticed on each page. Every time I read I try to find some tiny detail of the drawing I had never really paid attention to before. I find that this method at least gives me a chance of not losing my mind from the tedium. So I was trying to employ my sanity saving method as I read Across the Big Blue Sea one day fairly early on in the sabbatical and that time as I looked at the tiny boat floating on the surface of the ocean with this whole huge blue green world beneath it, I thought that is me. That is my truest understanding of spirituality right now: We are those small boats and our everyday lives are the surface of the ocean. Underneath is this vast mostly unseen world of mystery, of awe and beauty and sacredness. I began the sabbatical time knowing that I wanted to submerge myself into that unseen world, to dive into that ocean of mystery so to speak. Interestingly, what I think happened, what I actually experienced on sabbatical was really quite different than diving underneath - it was more that my sanity saving method of trying to find something new on every page, to see something I had not seen or noticed before began to be a way of seeing everything around me.

So what did I do and what happened? There is too much I want to tell you. I have ideas and book titles I want to share — things I noticed when visiting other churches, reflections on Melinda Green’s sermon about your sabbatical experience but, for now, for today, I thought I would just tell you a little bit about what the past four months were like for me, knowing there will be time for the rest later on.

In one of the readings that was key for me in shaping my sabbatical experience Mary Oliver writes: Another morning and I wake with thirst for the goodness I do not have. I walk out to the pond and all the way God has given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord I was never a quick scholar. As I think I might have mentioned before, I am not a quick scholar either and the sabbatical took me some time to settle into. I got the flu right away, accompanied by a hacking cough and my first ear ache in about 35 years. All my colleagues who had been on sabbatical recently told me to expect to get deathly ill at the beginning, but I secretly thought I wouldn’t, so my first sabbatical lesson was about humility. I remembering thinking it was ironic that we had chosen thirst as the theme for the sabbatical because the fever and cough made me terribly thirsty all the time. So those first two weeks I experienced thirst in its most literal form.

The first month was also a lesson in exile. I went from feeling like I was playing hooky to feeling a bit like I was in exile - an exile I had chosen but it was painful nonetheless. I missed you a lot, especially on Sunday mornings. I drove by the church accidentally on purpose a few times to see how things looked. I wished I could think of a legitimate reason to contact Sue Phillips, the Sabbatical Minister, so I could quiz her on how things were going but I couldn’t and I didn’t and slowly I settled into days that were quieter, slower and much less full of people, conversation, email, activity, noise and busyness. Because I was doing so much less, I started to take more pleasure in whatever I was doing and to look forward to small things. I was happy on Fridays, when the Groton Herald arrived in the mailbox. I got excited when I found a good magazine in the free box at the library, I was excited to take Caleb and Isabel to ballet class or the playground so I could sit and chat with the other parents, something I have rarely had time for.

Fairly early on I came face to face with the uncomfortable truth: wherever you go, there you are. In some ways this was a relief because I realized I didn’t really want to go anywhere. All my plans for retreats and trips seemed absurd and exhausting once the sabbatical began. Going to the coffee store and library seemed like an adventure. And somehow knowing that wherever I might go, I was going to bring myself with me gave me the freedom not to go much of anywhere. But for me the harder part of the truth that wherever you go there you are was realizing that being on sabbatical didn’t improve my personality. I really thought it would. I thought that a lot of my bad personality traits - my impatience and crankiness with those closest to me for example - could be attributed to the somewhat stressful nature of my work. I thought that without deadlines or stresses, I would be at least a slightly better person. It was fairly disappointing to find out this was not the case.

I also thought a lot about time. In the beginning the four months seemed too long and I feared the days were going to be hard to fill. By the middle I was certain the four months were going to be too short and the days were passing too fast. By the end the four months seemed about right but even then I wondered whether I was using the time well, doing enough with my time, making use of my time, even as I also knew that you had given me this time as a gift and it was mine to play with.

And I did play. Most of the play I did was around cooking: trying recipes, reading books about food and cooking, of which there are many, and reading food blogs on the internet, a genre I didn’t even know existed. I had always believed that I didn’t know how to cook and wasn’t interested in cooking and all of this proved quite untrue except for the fact I am still an awkward novice in the kitchen. Caleb and Isabel were often my sous-chefs which added to the general chaos and mess. I kept lists of recipes I tried and whether anyone in my family liked them. The vast majority of time, with the exception of cookies and cakes, no one liked anything I made. One night I created little individual egg souffles in ramekins. I thought they were great but Caleb declared that his tasted like a yellow sponge. Isabel said my pea soup tasted like a swamp. Another night I wrestled with a complicated pad thai recipe and managed to get bits of rice noodle stuck to practically every surface in my kitchen and the dish tasted terrible. Fran ate some to be kind but by the time I finished cleaning up, I couldn’t even stand to look at it.

But bread was my challenge, my despair and ultimately my hope. I followed as best I could the incredibly detailed yet mysteriously Zen advice of the bread making monks at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center from that bible of bread called the Tassajara Bread Book. But, like learning to meditate, bread did not come easy. Loaf after loaf was hard as a rock, or bad tasting or flat or all of these things. One loaf I was trying to make - a special Easter bread -so failed to rise that Caleb declared it looked like that practically two dimensional sea creature, a manta ray. Isabel got into a long conversation with the bread baker at O Natural’s restaurant about my struggles. She was watching raptly as he made loaf after loaf of the wonderful flat bread they serve there and told him, “My mama is learning how to bake bread but she always kills the yeast.” He was a kind man and answered, “Well at least your mama is trying.” A couple of friends suggested I get a bread machine but I wanted to teach my children how to mix the dough and put it to bed beneath a tea towel to rise. I wanted to knead the dough and shape it into loaves, not put it into a machine. So we fed the birds a lot of inedible bread but finally I learned. I learned how to keep the yeast alive and I turned out some lovely loaves to my great and deep satisfaction.

Upon my return to First Parish two weeks ago, I learned that the sabbatical committee and I had been in a strange parallel food universe during the last four months. They told me that one of the very few things they seemed to struggle with while I was gone was food - they had planned all these wonderful workshops and each one of the workshops required food that they had not planned for. So the urgent and pressing questions of the sabbatical became: Who would bring the food? Would there be enough food? What would people eat? The sabbatical committee said they felt they might stay together and start a catering business. And I suppose this isn’t so surprising, as food seems to be so central to our congregational life. So while our sabbatical theme was thirst, the themes of hunger and sustenance also found their way to the table.

I read constantly during the sabbatical and with great joy. I will put a complete sabbatical reading list in an upcoming church newsletter but some of the most important books I read were books about a certain kind of emptiness and spaciousness. I read books by people who days are ordered by prayer and walking and writing rather than by busyness. Looking back, I realize I was looking for guides, for teachers in the kind of quietness I had chosen for my sabbatical time and I found such teachers through my reading. I re-read both Dakota and Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, books about her experiences as an oblate with the Benedictine monks. This led to a book entitled The View From a Monastery by Brother Benet Tvedten, a brother of the same order Norris writes about, who also lives in the vast landscape of South Dakota. I read Thomas Merton’s biography Seven Storey Mountain and Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness. I read Mary Oliver and Meister Eckhardt and spent some wonderful hours searching the library shelves and creating large piles of books to take home.

Also, I prayed, using an ancient practice in the tradition of Christian mystics called centering prayer or contemplative prayer. This is a quiet, simple meditative kind of prayer - mostly sitting in silence, and believing that paying attention and opening oneself to the mystery is good to do and may change us in ways we cannot imagine or even quite understand. And while I can’t say that I brought myself to prayer with the same eagerness that I brought to my reading and writing, I did pray, sometimes with curiosity and openness, sometimes with boredom and restlessness.

Mary Oliver writes this little poem about prayer:

It doesn't have to be
The blue iris, it could be
Weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
Small stones; just
Pay attention, then patch
A few words together and don't try
To make them elaborate, this isn't
A contest but the doorway
Into thanks, and a silence in which
Another voice may speak.

I believe I was changed by paying attention and trying to go through that doorway into thanks and silence on an almost daily basis. I did start to feel quieter inside myself and I also started to hear and see better is the only way I can explain it. I first noticed this change when I was out taking walks. I approached walking the same way I approached reading the same book over and over. I told myself to try to notice just one new thing on the walk instead of noticing my boredom or out-of-shap-ed-ness. So I walked and I looked and listened for some new thing to notice, however small. And here is what happened: I started to see and hear new things everywhere - leaves trembling, birds flying from branch to branch, bird calls, all the different shades of green of the trees, wind rustling - all small and simple sights and sounds but they began to just stand out more. I hadn’t noticed how full the world is at any given moment and now, when I look, I do notice.

The other new thing is that the world shines more to me than it ever used to - it is as if things have a little more light than they used to, or maybe my eyes have more light because I know that the light that shines from trees and grass and water has always been there, whether or not I noticed it. The poet ee cummings wrote: now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened and that feels a bit like what has happened to me. So I have been walking and looking or standing on my tiny back porch and looking and while I don’t have the words for how things look different to me fortunately many others do seem to have words for it: A contemporary Sufi spiritual leader Bawa Muhaiyaddeen wrote these words:

The things that change are not our real life.
Within us there is another body, another beauty.
It belongs to that ray of Light which never changes.
We must discover how to mingle with (the Light) and become one
with that Unchanging thing.
We must realize and understand this treasure of Truth.
That is why we have come to the world.
Within your heart in a space no bigger than an atom,
God has placed the 18,000 universes.

And of course there is Mary Oliver who writes so often of how the world shines to her, who says:

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, It's simple, they say,
And you too have come
Into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
With light, and to shine.

I don’t know what difference it will make that when I look I see the world shining. I know some of you have seen the world this way for a long time — Again, Mary Oliver writes:

So come to the pond,
Or the river of your imagination

Or the harbor of your longing.

I did do that. I went to the river of my imagination and the harbor of my longing and the fishing was good. The water was still and very deep and full. I needed to be still in order to see into the depths and I needed to stay close to home. Caleb and Isabel and I spent a lot of time watching James Brook this winter and spring as it flowed through our backyard. It was as full as I have ever seen it this year because of all the snow, widening its banks, overflowing even and I was glad to be home to watch it. And I am so glad to be home with you.


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Most recently updated 2009-06-06