A Question of Balance

Stuart Lowrie

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Introductory Words and Welcome – Stuart Lowrie

Good Morning and Welcome to the September 19th Service of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork.

Autumn is upon us, with the Fall Equinox arriving later this week.

If you are like me, so many unique thoughts and feelings well up within at this time of year, here are a few quotes that may help us move from the summer that was into the autumn that will be:

“The wind blows out, the bubble dies; the spring entomb’d in autumn lies; the dew dries up; the star is shot; the flight is past and man forgot.”

As a child headed back to the classroom after a summer of play and adventure, I felt strong kinship with those dark words of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

John Keats wrote more optimistically of Autumn saying:

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness! Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run; To bend with apples the moss’d cottage trees, And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.”

Writers turn frequently to literary metaphor associated with the changing of the seasons, This by Sarah Doudney also reminds us of this place here and now:

“Listen to the Water-Mill: Through the live-long day How the clicking of its wheel Wears the hours away! Languidly the Autumn wind Stirs the forest leaves, From the field the reapers sing Binding up their sheaves: And a proverb haunts my mind As a spell is cast, “The mill cannot grind With the water that is past.”

A very Zen concept – we only have the perpetual now.

Dorothy Parker gives us this terse comment on the seasons, a back-handed praise of Autumn if ever there was one:

“Summer makes me drowsy. Autumn makes me sing. Winter’s pretty lousy, but I hate Spring.”

Others note, more sympathetically the turning of the seasons:

William Wordsworth notes:

“This flower that first appeared as summer’s guest preserves her beauty ‘mid autumnal leaves and to her mournful habits fondly cleaves.”

Hymn # 69 – Give Thanks

Announcements:

Welcome to this service of worship. My name is Stuart Lowrie and it is my privilege and honor to serve as co-President of this congregation.

If you are new to our group, please take a moment to sign our guest book. If you write your name and address legibly, we will send you notices and newsletters about future services for a few months. We hope that you will return and get to know us this fall.

Open House at the home of Alison Cornish and Pat Moran

Pat and Alison invite you to see where they make their home, and meet members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bellport (where Alison also serves as Consulting Minister, half-time) for an afternoon of informal socializing.

When: Saturday, October 23rd, 2:00 pm – 6:00 pm (rain date, October 30th)

What to Bring: A snack to share, a pumpkin to decorate (we’ll provide drinks and art materials). Children and youth are warmly welcome.

Lighting of the Chalice – #451

Sharing of Joys and Sorrows

Not For Children Only – Egg Balancing at the Equinox? Or the Yolk’s on You …

Offertory – Zartliche Liebe – Beethoven

Please give now, in the baskets being passed, to support the work and ministry of this congregation. We also give, in the basket on this stand, to the helping hand fund. Proceeds from the Helping Hand Fund go to assist needy individuals in our area and to support the work of organizations who share the mission of this congregation.

Between The Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur – Another Kind of Balance

Rosh Hashana began at sunset on Wednesday and ended at sunset on Friday – Judaism’s only two day celebration – this marks the traditional beginning of the Jewish calendar and opens the “high holy days” that culminate, 10 days later in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Poised here nearly mid-way between the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement and in recognition of the Jewish traditions and writings that we draw upon as Unitarian Universalists, let us inhabit for a moment the ceremonies of this New Year.

The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) occurs in September or October on the Gregorian calendar and commemorates the anniversary of Creation. On this day Jewish tradition holds that God opens the Book of Life and observes his creatures, deciding their fate for the coming year. Though festive, the celebrations are muted in acknowledgement of the great judgment taking place. Indeed, more orthodox Jews will also refer to Rosh Hashana as the day of Judgement.

As is customary in Jewish festivals, observance begins on nightfall the day before Rosh Hashanah. More traditional and orthodox celebrants prepare by bathing, receiving haircuts, donning special clothes and giving treats to children.

Though believers hold that God opens the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah, the judgment passed at that opening is not final. The book is not ‘sealed’ until Yom Kippur, ten days later. The time between these two festivals is a period for self-reflection in which, among other things, the devout justify their existence to God.

For the more orthodox, prayers play an important part in the proceedings. Intense and lengthy devotions on Rosh Hashanah vary from those normally uttered on the Jewish Sabbath with even the familiar prayers containing subtle differences. Following the evening prayer people will wish each other a Good New Year. “Leshana tova” being a standard greeting.

Following lunch on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the ritual of the Casting is performed. Crumbs of bread are tossed into water after the Torah verse, “And you will cast all their sins into the depth of the sea.” The hems of the worshippers’ garments are shaken alluding to the fact that sins are being cast away.

One of the essential elements of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar. The shofar is made from an animal’s horn, preferably a ram.

The horn is blown 100 times every day of Rosh Hashanah with different meanings attached to the varying sounds. The command to blow the shofar comes from the Torah, but no explanation is attached. Rabbis have provided different reasons. It acts as a reminder for the soul to enter into repentance. It is also a warning to the Jewish people not to fall into temptation. It calls to mind the blasts blown by Moses when he ascended from Mount Sinai for the second time, after pleading with God for mercy for the Jews who had worshipped at the alter of a false God.

The sweeter the better – that’s the best rule for cooks to observe. Keeping sweet and avoiding tart tastes, it is believed, will usher in a year full of goodness and delight. On Rosh Hashanah, it’s customary to dip apples, representing joy and blessing, in honey and say: “May it be a good and sweet year.”

[pause to allow congregants to dip, recite and eat apples]

Other foods, with names that lend themselves towards positive signs are also used in the Rosh Hashana celebration. For instance, the Hebrew word for carrot is “gezer,” which also means decree. So munching a carrot is also a request that any evil decree will be withheld in the coming year.

I can think of one evil decree on Nov 2nd that I would choose to have withheld in the coming year. Let’s eat a carrot to send the words on high so that we may avoid these decrees.

[pause so that congregants can eat a carrot]

The word play also crosses over into English – it is not unknown for people to take a stalk of celery and a handful of raisins and, prior to eating them, request help in getting a raise in salary! Eating a pomegranate signifies the wish that merits will increase, like the seeds of the fruit, while fish represent a prayer for fertility. The very meticulous will bring the head of an animal onto their table to request that they be “as the head and not the tail.”

From the celebrations of Rosh Hashana, observant Jews move seamlessly into the ten days of reflection and mediation that concludes on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

These days are for reflection, self-examination, consideration of our ethical and moral responsibilities, providing each observer an opportunity to restore relationships with other human beings and, among believers, with God. Both relationships are part of Yom Kippur.

The day-long period of fasting, worship, and thoughtful reflection on the past year is intended to encourage an inner change, a “return” to living life as our principles would demand of us. For the orthodox, it means returning to life as spelled out in the Torah by God.

During Yom Kippur, celebrants first acknowledge their “sins” against others, and then make reparations. In turn, they ask for forgiveness and it is expected that just as they hopes that others will forgive them, they are expected to forgive others for their sins against them.

Thereafter, those who are believers can turn to failures in their relationship with God. The hope offered in this period of reflection is that sincere repentance will lead to forgiveness by that same God. The discipline of the day is intended also to encourage a sense of awe and the practice of restraint.

As we anticipate the annual closing of the book of life later this week, let us read together the words in our hymnal, #633, Atonement Day, please follow in the italicized portion.

Congregational Reading – #633 Atonement Day

Presentation – A Question of Balance – Stuart Lowrie, UUCSF CO-President

Finding our place in the fall equinox

On September 22nd, at 12:30 PM, Eastern Daylight Savings Time, the center of the sun will cross directly over the earth’s equator, headed south in an annual cycle.

At the North Pole, the sun will dip below the horizon for the first time in six months.

At the South Pole, the sun edges above the horizon for the first time in six months.

During the 12 hours immediately before and 12 hours immediately after the moment of the equinox on September 22nd, at 12:30 PM EDT, across the whole planet, the length of darkness and light, of day and night, will be about 12 hours each, everywhere.

The apparent location of the sun over the earth will continue moving south, thanks to the inclination of our planet with respect to the plane of its orbit around the sun, until the Winter Solstice which will occur at about 8:42 AM, Eastern Standard Time, on December 21st. On that day, at that time, the Sun will shine directly over the tropic of Capricorn, located far into the southern hemisphere. Meanwhile, darkness unbroken by daylight will have moved out from the North Pole to embrace all lands and waters south to the Arctic Circle, where, on the day of the Winter Solstice, the Sun will not rise above the horizon at all.

At the equinox, however, for a brief 24 hour period later this week, the earth is “in balance” in that special way I just described with respect to our orbit and place near the sun. The Spring Equinox is a similar balance point in the celestial calendar. But there is a difference between the time from the Fall Equinox to the next Spring Equinox when you compare it to the time from the Spring Equinox to the next Fall Equinox.

We’ll return to that peculiar imbalance later if we have time.

Not surprisingly, even the ancients were quite aware of and engaged by this balance point in the annual calendar. While they had no clue about the underlying physics, they certainly knew that the Fall Equinox marked a halfway point to the dreaded Winter Solstice.

The Autumn Equinox is also known as the Pagan holiday, Mabon. It is on this day that Pagans celebrate balance, the harvest season and Thanksgiving. On the Autumn Equinox, food, such as dried vegetables, is offered back to the Earth in a gesture of thanks for all that the Earth has supplied in the past season. These rituals are not that different from some Jewish food rituals associated with Rosh Hashana and one can conjecture that they share a common ancestry in the dim recesses of human history.

Like all balancing acts, this balance of the earth at the equinox is such a short-lived thing. All too soon, in this hemisphere, the days are shortened and the nights made colder and longer.

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And, like most balancing acts, it is marred by some asymmetries – in this case, much to our advantage, here in the northern hemisphere.

The spring equinox of 2004–night and day equal–occurred on March 20, day 80 of the year. Fall equinox will be on September 22, day 266. The difference of 186 days is definitely longer than half a year (close to 183 days). How come?

If Earth moved around the Sun in a circle with constant speed, the time from one equinox to the next would always be exactly half a year.

Looking at the orbit from above, the two lines, equinox-to-equinox and solstice to solstice (shortest day to shortest night), cross at right angles, and each would divide the circle in half (a drawing might help here!)

Actually, however, the orbit is an ellipse, an elongated oval, so the two lines divide it unequally. Furthermore, by Kepler’s second law of planetary motion, Earth moves a bit faster when it is closer to the Sun. These two features explain the discrepancy.

By Kepler’s first law of orbital motion, the Earth’s orbit is an ellipse with the Sun at one focus, displaced from the center towards one end. Actually, with Earth the orbital ellipticity (aka “eccentricity”) is very small. If you looked at a scale drawing of our orbit on paper, you would have a hard time telling it from a circle–although, if the Sun was also included, you would easily see that it was off-center.

Now it so happens that Earth comes nearest to the Sun around January 4, quite close to our winter solstice (about December 21). The solstice-to-solstice line is therefore almost exactly along the long axis of the ellipse, and the line between equinox positions divides the ellipse quite unequally. During the winter segment (fall to spring) Earth is closer to the Sun, its path is “the shorter half the ellipse” (=less than half the ellipse length), and it moves a little faster. During the summer segment the Sun is more distant, Earth must cover a little more than half the length of the ellipse and it moves a little more slowly. That is why it takes 3 extra days to cover this stretch.

Thus, in the northern hemisphere, Spring and Summer are nearly a week longer than they are in the southern hemisphere. And our winter and fall seasons are not only a week shorter, but they occur when the earth is closest to the sun so, on average, they’re warmer than winters in the southern hemisphere.

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We move so quickly into the season of Winter at the Solstice that each year I pause in December and wonder what happened to the fall?

As the writer Dinah Maria Mulock puts it,

“Autumn to winter, winter into Spring, Spring into summer, summer into fall, -so rolls the changing year, so we change; motion so swift we know not that we move.”

And Edwin Way Teale writes of the seasons, seeing Autumn as I do:

“Change is a measure of time and, in autumn, time seems speeded up. What was is not and never again will be; what is, is change.”

From this placing of the equinox into the perspective of motion, I would say that what makes the equinox a balance point is precisely the swinging of the pendulum of the seasons itself.

Focusing on the separate pearls on a string does not allow us to appreciate a pearl necklace, so too, focusing on the cardinal points of our seasonal compass, the solstice and equinox pearls on the string of our orbit around the Sun, misses the larger picture.

I think a large part of what makes a pearl necklace so enticing is the continuity and implied repetition of its circular form. Yes, a single pearl, or even four pearls on a string can be beautiful – just as regarding the Summer and Winter Solstices, the Fall and Spring Equinoxes on the days when they occur can also be beautiful and inspiring. But the full transit of our planet, repeating these days of wonder in an endless cycle is really where the meaning comes from.

The solstice and the equinox are with us for as long as we can imagine. They preceded us further back than we can measure. And they have shaped, most profoundly, the lives, rituals and beliefs of the humanity throughout its time on earth. With luck and intention, they will be observed and enjoyed for countless years into the future.

Special events, like the passage of a superlative comet, or the over-hyped artificial “millennium” celebration to which we were subjected a few years ago arrive, usually once in a lifetime, sparkle and are quickly forgotten, gone forever.

But Solstice and Equinox give us punctuation marks on that winding helix that is our continuing journey on this planet. More than mere punctuation marks, the solstice and equinox also give us handles, literally places where we can grab on to the whirling cycles of the seasons and our lives within those boundaries.

For a moment we are encouraged (some would say required) to pause and take stock of where we are in our mad rush through the galaxy, our mad rush through our lives, our mad rush through relationships, through jobs, through meals … Perhaps this is why Pagan and Jewish ceremony at the Fall Equinox is so focused on reflection and repentance.

But without the cycles themselves, there would be no punctuation points – no solstice, no equinox.

The contemplation of the autumnal equinox therefore requires us to savor its context in the constant cycling of seasons and our changing lives.

Wu Men Says:

“Spring Comes with flowers, autumn with the moon, summer with the breeze, winter with snow. When idle concerns don’t fill your thoughts, that’s your best season.”

In that repetition of the seasons, we may find comfort within and orienting to the changing world that confronts us. Each of the cardinal points of our seasonal compass draws attention to different celebrations in our lives. Each reflects back to us, in some measure, the absolutes of our human condition. These punctuation marks return, year after year, subtly different in each iteration, enriched and changed in meaning by the passage of time and events.

As we move through the changing seasons,

“Our judgement ripens; our imagination decays. We cannot at once enjoy the flowers of the Spring of life and the fruits of its Autumn” according to Thomas Babington Macaulay.

And Samual Butler puts it this way:

“Youth is like spring, an over-praised season more remarkable for biting winds than genial breezes. Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits.”

These may be sentiments that only the tired and old would agree with, nevertheless, balancing at the Autumnal equinox does NOT mean standing an egg on its end,

however:

Balancing at the Autumnal Equinox, could mean not only taking stock of the present situation, but also honoring the procession of the seasons that gives so much meaning and context to our lives.

Balancing at the Autumnal equinox might mean reflecting, looking back with atonement and looking forward with hope and love.

Balancing at the Autumnal Equinox might mean simply looking at the moon, the sky, the stars and feeling the bracing change in temperature to dry coolness from summer wet warmth.

What ever it means, I hope that each of us in this equinox season, balanced between Summer and Fall, will take time to inhabit the changes.

May it be so.

Hymn #349, We Gather Together

Closing Words

“Believe in yourself, your neighbors, your work, your ultimate attainment of more complete happiness. It is only the farmer who faithfully plants seeds in the Spring, who reaps a harvest in the Autumn.”

The words of B. C. Forbes

Extinguishing the Chalice – #538 Harbingers of Frost

Postlude – Hungarian Dance # 1 in G minor, Johannes Brahm

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