Balance

Stuart Lowrie

Sunday, September 18, 2005 – 

PRELUDE –

Introductory Words and Welcome – Stuart Lowrie

Good Morning and Welcome to the September 18th Service of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork.

Welcome to this service of worship. My name is Stuart Lowrie and it is my privilege and honor to be a member of this vibrant and caring 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. AND please feel welcome to stay for refreshments at the end of this service so that we might begin to learn about one-another.

Just a year ago, I stood here behind this lectern and shared my thoughts on Autumn, 2004. As the saying goes,

That was then, this is now.

Where a year ago, I had hope that we would throw off the shackles of our unreasonable federal leaders, now I carry deep sorrow and shame that our country’s leaders cannot respond to the needs of our own citizens in times of crisis.

But the progress of time is like a helix, revisiting the same circle over and over, yet moving a little distance away from the past with each revolution. Now, that helical time inflicts upon us the burdens of thoughtless leadership and failures in action of untrue dogma. Still, it may give us blessings in equal measure to our regrets.

For example: A year ago, the Reverend Alison Cornish had not yet graced this pulpit as our minister – how long ago that seems now! And who among us remembers as clearly those days before Alison as we remember these full days with her.

And a year ago, our new home rising on the Bridgehampton Sag Harbor Turnpike was still under construction, with foundation and walls barely complete. Today we are mere days away from completion of all components, ready to move in perhaps as soon as the first week of October… and this is indeed a good thing, since we have been carrying the cost of a mortgage and public utility services to our new home since early summer…

A year ago, we had no working web site – we were stalled in efforts to regain control of our domain name, much less update the site with new content to let visitors know about us. Today, our site welcomes dozens of visitors a day – many of you probably checked in this past week to see what the service would be today or to review recent progress on the building or to view the current edition of our beautiful newsletter in all its full color glory.

There is cause for optimism, therefore. If not in Washington, then here, locally where each of us can and does make a difference. And, ultimately that is the meaning of thinking globally and acting locally. As we enter this season of harvest, let us remember to give thanks for that which we can give thanks.

Hymn # 69 – Give Thanks

Lighting of the Chalice – #451

Flame of fire, spark of the universe

that warmed our ancestral hearth –

agent of life and death,

symbol of truth and freedom.

We strive to understand ourselves

And our earthly home

Sharing of Joys and Sorrows

Words for all ages –

One Was Johnny – Maurice Sendak

Offertory –

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 here who share the mission of this congregation.

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

Are there any announcements concerning the life of this congregation?

CONGREGATIONAL READING

# 540 The Peace of Autumn

READING

Late October – Maya Angelou

Carefully

The leaves of autumn

Sprinkle down the tinny

Sound of little dyings

And skies sated

of ruddy sunsets

and roseate dawns

roil ceaselessly in

cobweb greys and turn

to black

for comfort

Only lovers

see the fall

a signal end to endings

a gruffish gesture alerting

those who will not be alarmed

that we begin to stop

in order simply

to begin

again.

MEDITATION

MUSICAL RESPONSE

PRESENTATION

Celestial Balance:

Autumn is upon us, with the Fall Equinox arriving on Thursday, September 22, at 5:23 PM EST.

Locally, our day length, gradually shortening since the Summer solstice a scant three months ago, now becomes shorter than the length of night.

For the 12 hours immediately before the moment of the equinox and the 12 hours immediately after the moment of the equinox, all parts of the earth will receive an equal measure of 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness.

This means that the sun at the north pole sets at the moment of the equinox, Once it sets, the sun will not rise again until the vernal equinox in March, 2006. Symmetrically, at the south pole, the sun rises at the moment of the equinox. There, the sun will not set again until the moment of the spring equinox in March, 2006.

Our seasonal dance is a celestial balancing act that has been on-going since before life appeared on this planet.

To me this solar dance has always seemed like the zero sum game of the playground see-saw. No-one gets ahead, no-one falls behind – what one side takes away in gains it soon gives up again in loses.

But the truth for us in the northern hemisphere is actually more complex. Thanks to the fact that the earth’s orbit is an ellipse and to the fact that the earth is closest to the sun in early January, we actually get about a week MORE of Spring and Summer than our friends in the southern hemisphere. They get, instead, a week more winter and fall.

Balance, therefore does not necessarily mean equality.

Human Balance

I’m sure that all of you strive to obtain balance in all the aspects of your life:

Work, play, parenting, rest,

But I doubt that, even once you achieve what you consider to be a good balance of work, pleasure, family, rest and all the other things that we try to keep balanced in our lives – you’d ever find yourself doing equal amounts of work, family, rest, entertainment,

As the parent of two small children, I’ve made some pretty draconian decisions over the last few years in favor of spending more time with my family, being more available to my children. As with the unequal sharing of summer and winter between the northern and southern hemispheres of our planet, my personal balance resonates with fundamental inequities.

As Thomas Kinkade, a popular California artist and devout Christian, said,

“Balance, peace, and joy are the fruit of a successful life. It starts with recognizing your talents and finding ways to serve others by using them.”

Kinkade’s service ethic certainly inspired me, as a quick glance at my career, both professional and voluntary, would certainly attest.

Though I eschewed the “devout Christianity” portion, I’ve always been ready to pitch in and share my meager talents wherever they might be used. And so, arriving here on the East End 11 years ago, I pitched in with this congregation, I pitched in with my job.

But I might argue that a successful life is the fruit of balance, peace and joy and not the other way around.

Arriving here in 1994, my life seemed to be reasonably balanced. The peace and joy thing – well, let’s talk about that in a minute.

Our home consisted of a rented cottage on Three Mile Harbor with our belongings in it, but not our lives. In terms of equality, I had the luxury of spending nearly as much time being a conservationist as I wanted. I loved my job and, with few other responsibilities, it became all-consuming. Those of you who knew me in 1998 and all of us who benefit from the conservation wrought since then by our local Community Preservation Funds can be glad that balance in my life did not require equality.

Both my partner Ken and I spent our time out in the communities we had chosen to serve – his choice took him overseas – mostly to Indonesia at that point. My choice sent me all over Long Island, but mostly within the five east end towns of Suffolk County.

There was harmony at home.

Once we discovered this congregation, it took scarcely a moment before I had another major commitment – this time to a liberal religious tradition struggling to leave its mark on the communities of Long Island’s south fork. I joined the Board of this congregation in 1997 and became co-President a year later, a role I filled for over five years. In a different congregation in a different place, this would have been more than manageable. But pretty quickly I found myself moving from feeling “balanced” to a balancing act.

Suffice it to say that I keenly felt the demands of a full-time job promoting conservation funding coupled with the demands of an active congregation beginning to imagine and actualize its future in a home of its own.

Like amoeba, both my job and my Unitarian commitment divided in two at about the same time. In 1999 I began working for our national office in Washington, and at nearly the same time, I agreed to serve on the Advisory Board of the Long Island Unitarian Universalist Fund.

By now, things were starting to get a little out of control. Like Alice in Wonderland, I found myself running as fast as I could just to stay in the same place.

One final theme was waiting in the background to finally challenge my balance and harmony – to remake my self-image. Ken and I began to press forward on adoption in earnest.

Through the closing months of the twentieth century we struggled to complete legal documents, adoptive parents surveys, adoptive family profiles and countless other tasks.

Although I had been a willing partner in this adoption scheme up until then, I didn’t really “get” Ken’s drive to be a parent – the sheer overwhelming necessity of it in his life for a sense of “balance”. I didn’t get it until one moment, shortly after a visit to Tennessee to share Thanksgiving with my extended family, including a slew of nieces and nephews.

After that joyous, raucous and wonderful Thanksgiving celebration, I returned home reflecting on the great pleasure my brothers had clearly received from their years as parents. And I thought about how, as they grew older, their children would be there in ways I could scarcely imagine to supply a special validation, some kind of connection to the world that I did not know.

As Winston Churchill famously said:

“Most of us eventually stumble across the truth, but we manage to get up, dust ourselves off and continue on as if nothing had happened.”

This time, though, having stumbled across this truth by watching my brothers, for the first time in my life I felt an empty tweaking, one that lurked in my future but had finally pushed through into my present: if I ended my life without having children, I knew that I would regret it, that I would have lived a life without a key sense of balance that should be essential to my well-being.

From that point on, I was a real partner with Ken in the adoption scramble, more like a marathon with an unknowable ending, really. The ups and downs, sadness and expectation, though, seemed to lead nowhere as the agency told us not to expect any babies from them.

What options did we have? Our home and our hearts and our lives were ready. We even had a nanny living in the apartment, ready to help us.

In that dark time, the see-saw of life had stopped, with us hanging in space, flailing for that resolution we had envisioned for years.

One fine October day, while running from one place to another, deep in the bowels of Dallas International Airport, I called Ken to see how he was doing. Nothing could have prepared me for his response: “ We may have a baby, there’s a situation in Buffalo”.

By the time I reached Tucson for the Annual Meeting of my organization, Ken had already emailed me a photo of a new-born little girl, our daughter Leyla. I was in Buffalo NY the next day to meet her and to begin the process of taking over her care, transplanting her to the Hamptons, where – you guessed it – we had just broken ground to build a new 800 square foot kitchen onto our house…

In the weeks that followed, our inexpressible joy you can well imagine! With tentative first steps, we entered into that new balance, the dynamic unfolding of a new family. With guidance and grace from so many, including saints from this congregation, we negotiated the learning curve of new parenthood.

Sleep deprivation, construction mania, travel around the country and local congregational affairs filled my life, but even so, a profound satisfaction lay underneath all that chaos. Our lives as a family were finding a new balance.

So, when the Texas agency that had told us they had no babies anymore had our social worker, Floyd, call us over Thanksgiving I was unprepared for his bright announcement, “You’re not going to believe this, but we have a baby for you.” Without a break I replied, “You’re not going to believe this, but we already have a baby.” Without missing a beat, Floyd asked, “Do you want another one?”

Well, we were too sleep-deprived to say: “No, thanks just the same.” And that wonderful baby is our son, Darius, born six weeks after his sister.

The arrival of my two children in rapid succession in the fall of 2000 shifted my appreciation of life and balance to something more Orwellian – as George said:

“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or very foolish imagine otherwise.”

Anyone who’s ever raised twins can appreciate Orwell’s dark observation that life is suffering. Beginning with the interminable sleepless nights, midnight bottles, the 10, 12, 2 and 4 AM feeding schedules and continuing right through to the evenly matched sibling competition that reveals itself the instant one of them learns to crawl. The other learns immediately out of the need for self-defense. The mobile one gets the best toys…

The Dalai Lama said, somewhat more hopefully:

“Everyone wants happiness; nobody wants to suffer. Many problems around us are a mental projection of certain negative or unpleasant things. If we analyze our own mental attitude, we may find it quite unbearable. Therefore, a well-balanced mind is very useful and we should try and have a stable mental state.”

But then, he doesn’t have any children.

From time to time, children are the negative and unpleasant things that we find quite unbearable. And they strive with perverse delight to make sure that the useful, well-balanced and stable mental state is never obtained…

My own children manage this in different ways. With my daughter, it’s all about her eating habits. Fran Lebowitz once said that:

“Food is an important part of a balanced diet.”

This is a fact that my daughter would vigorously dispute. She’s much more like the anonymous wag who opined that :

“A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand.” 

Our son, on the other hand, tends more toward the balance imagined by Cyril Connolly, 20th Century English Critic:

“A life based on reason will always require to be balanced by an occasional bout of violent and irrational emotion, for instinctual drives must be satisfied.” 

We have begun to learn how to cope with the occasional bout of violent and irrational emotion as his instinctual drives are satisfied. But we hope our son’s balancing acts this summer are not a life-long attribute.

As it happens, on the life balance department, both Ken and I feel that we’d already enjoyed our lives quite a bit before we adopted two babies.

There is a theme here of “living life fully” at all times. In our youth (long faded, I assure you!) we lived abroad, traveled to wonderful places and enjoyed favorable exchange rates that today’s Americans abroad can only dream about.

While we may sometimes wish we were just a little younger – our children will start college as we prepare to retire – we both know that a balance was achieved here, as well.

Our long and misspent youth has taken away any sense of lost opportunities that our present dedication to raising our family might engender. We’re not wondering if we’ll ever be able to afford that trip to Europe when we retire, or do that safari in Botswana, or that sailing cruise from Java to Sumatra across the caldera of Krakatoa…

We already did all that wonderful traveling.

Having children wrought a wondrous sea change over me and reconstructed my sense of balance. Like many parents, I may make jokes about the travails of my tasks and the crazy actions of my children. But I would not trade a single moment of my time with them for anything else I have done in my life. For me, there is nothing more precious than holding my son or daughter and feeling him or her snuggle into my shoulder and settle into quiet relaxation.

To make sure I get that snuggle time, I’m working only on Long Island and only three days a week now. And I’ve moved away from other extra-curricular activities, I’m not on the Board of this congregation anymore – I’m not on the Board of the LI UU Fund. I easily resist all those attractive and flattering pressures to increase involvement in my job or extra-family life.

Where once it was just Ken and me, now we four are a family. And no matter what may happen in the unknowable future, I have been irrevocably transformed into a parent. When my children are in their 40’s, they’ll still be my babies. When they come to hold my aged hand in the nursing home, I’ll still be their parent.

Being there for them – having them with me

What a piece of unanticipated balance that has turned out to be!

In those moments I realize that I have arrived at Thomas Kincade’s balance, peace and joy. It may still be too early to judge whether my life is a success or not, but, at last, all the ingredients are there.

It does seem a universal to proclaim “balance” as the sine qua non of a life “well-lived”.

Euripides wrote:

“The best and safest thing is to keep a balance in your life, acknowledge the great powers around us and in us. If you can do that, and live that way, you are really a wise man.” Or woman.

But how do we obtain a balanced life?

For most of us, the pursuit of balance in our lives is roughly analogous to

“Burns’ Hog-Weighing Method:

(1) Get a perfectly symmetrical plank and balance it across a sawhorse. (2) Put the hog on one end of the plank. (3) Pile rocks on the other end until the plank is again perfectly balanced. (4) Carefully guess the weight of the rocks.”

But I can make these two observations about balancing ones life.

From our solar system and from its passage through the annual revolution of the seasons, we know that balance is not equality. Even though we get a better deal on spring and summer than our brothers and sisters in the southern hemisphere, our seasons are “balanced” by any other meaning of the word.  Similarly, those aspects of our lives that give us a sense of balance and harmony need not be equal with one another for us to truly be “balanced”.

So go ahead, deal a blow to George Orwell’s contention that life is primarily suffering and take that vacation in the Bahamas this winter. It won’t pour imbalance into the revolutions of celestial orbs or, by itself, disrupt your life’s balance. Indeed, it may be the very thing you need to quiet the chattering forces encouraging your dismay.

And, as Albert Einstein said:

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”

If you try to stop to catch your balance, to find the measure of balance that you’re lacking, be prepared to fall over. But if you have the strength to keep on swimming, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll swim right into that balance we all pray for.

May it be so.

CLOSING WORDS

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.”

– Carl Jung

CLOSING HYMN # 52 “In the Sweet Fields of Autumn”

WORDS For extinguishing the Chalice

#685 by T.S. Eliot

Postlude

what’s it like to try to negotiate

“balance” between work, kids, home, congregational life – why not speak

personally, and scientifically, and humorously

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