Bittersweet Life

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork July 21, 2013

It was as if all of the happiness, all of the magic of this blissful hour had flowed together into these stirring, bittersweet tones and flowed away, becoming temporal and transitory once more.                                                                          Herman Hesse

Happiness. Simple as a glass of chocolate or tortuous as the heart. Bitter. Sweet. Alive.  Joanne Harris, Chocolat

First Message        The Lost Horse            Chinese Folktale[1]

A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day, for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a blessing?" Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a disaster?" Their household was richer by a fine horse, which his son loved to ride. One day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a blessing?"

A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did the father and son survive to take care of each other. Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.

Reading                 The Gold Stars and the Bittersweet  Victoria Safford[2]

One afternoon someone left a strange and beautiful message scotch-taped to the office door. The author didn’t even leave a name, though I knew who it was; her message simply said “I forgot to tell you when we met this morning, there are little gold stars all amongst the bittersweet. It’s all there, mixed together.”

I had just met with this person, who was not quite in crisis but dancing on the edge talking and weeping and raging through one of those hard, hard moments that can last for weeks or months or years. It was painful stuff, faced with courage.  Here, hours later, was this slightly mysterious, elegant message, and I thought how amazing it is that some people can render even the most desperate experience poetically, and what a gift this is, this making of art out of ashes, and how rare. I was very moved.

The next day, there came a second message from the person [this time] on the answering machine, slightly altering my view of things.  “It’s me again, calling back about the stars and bittersweet. I forgot to tell you, I stuffed it all in garbage bags, and they’re in the closet in the Social Hall. Those berries make an awful mess.”

Well, there’s not much poetry in that. As it turns out, there were no metaphors at work at all. Before our appointment that morning, this person had been cleaning up after a church party for which the decorations had included branches of cut bittersweet from members’ autumn gardens and long lengths of gold tinsel wire to which tiny metal stars were fixed.   So it really was all garbage.

But I’m intrigued by conversations and by language that can speak of trash bags, closets, golden stars and bittersweet, and refer with equal accuracy to the very depths of human hope and suffering or to the details of committee cleanup.  And I know that I am called – as I suspect we all are called – to places where the sacred and the ordinary are all mixed up together, where work is prayer and prayer is song and songs are sacraments and sacraments are silent or spoken brokenly in messages we sometimes barely comprehend, in words we speak in love to one another and to the golden stars.

Bittersweet Life                                           The Rev. Alison Cornish

That life is bittersweet is a given.  It is bittersweet because of the full range of circumstances that give rise to the fullness of experience and feelings.  As humans, we are capable of joy, wonder, peacefulness and love …and also sadness, pain, anger and anxiety … sometimes, it seems, all in very short order, or proximity. Shauna Niequist, writing in Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way writes of this:

The world is changing all the time, (Unitarian Universalism would say – so are we) at every moment.  Someone is falling in love right now, and someone is being born. A dream is coming true in some city or small town, and right at the same moment, another dream is crashing and crumbling. A marriage is ending somewhere, and it is someone’s wedding day, maybe right in the same town.  It’s all happening.

Every Sunday, we model this with our own joys, sorrows, concerns, hopes – as a  microcosm of real life. (Once I read a post on a listserve about worship, suggesting that we separate these different sharings into categories … first all the joys, then all the sorrows …I found myself shouting NO! at the computer screen.)

We could leave the subject there … yes, it is a Bittersweet Life. Yes, for everyone, everywhere, all the time.  But that wouldn’t be much of a message … and, as UUs, we are called to dig a bit deeper … to search … to question

First, how is it that the experience of life is both bitter and sweet? How was it that the world wasn’t ‘constructed’ differently – just bitter, or just sweet? 

And, that it is the way that it is … is it simply fate? A grand plan playing out this way, and we, actors upon the stage, the play already scripted?

Well, no … and yes …Life is a rich mix of “that’s just the way it is” and “our lives are the products of thousands – millions – of choices.”  In the words of the UU theologian, James Luther Adams, we are “fated to be free” – he goes on to say … “We cannot escape from freedom and its responsibilities.  Freedom is our fate as well as our birthright.” 

In fact, this rich mixture of fate and freedom – and how to be with it – is well reflected in the opening words of the familiar prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr: 

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

So, our task, as humans, is to look the world in the eye, to take in all of its sweetness and bitterness, to acknowledge what is immutable … and what is not … and use our human agency, our ability to make choices, for the good, to make more “sweet.”

Here’s an example that’s been on my mind this week … we cannot (yet, at least) control the color of someone’s skin.  But, the way we view and treat others, irrespective of their skin color, for that, we have all the choice imaginable.

Another lesson I glean from opening my eyes to both the bitter and the sweet in life … is that of humility.  It’s what the Chinese folk tale teaches … we just don’t know everything. 

As much as I don’t believe in a “grand plan” that has my, or anyone else’s, destiny all mapped out, pre-arranged, neither can I, from my vantage point, from my own knowledge and experience, possibly know for sure what might be bitter and what might be sweet – and most especially for someone else.  I can have my own experience, and my own interpretations of the moment, but that is all partial. It’s like holding up one piece of a jigsaw puzzle, and thinking that you now know what the whole picture will look like.  We don’t. We can’t.  Remembering that “bitter” and “sweet” are not hard and fast categories – for all people, and for all time – helps me to keep my mind open, to not make assumptions and judgments, and that is a very good thing for this assuming, judging human (of course, I’m the only one so susceptible …)

Remembering that life is both bitter and sweet also gives us the opportunity to both experience, and extend, compassion.  Compassion – to feel with – is something that the Buddhist Jack Kornfield speaks of as witnessing the suffering of another, and, in that suffering, seeing the reflection of one’s own pain.  “I understand that. I suffer in the same way. It’s a part of life.”  These are not just words but a true “being with.”  And this empathy is important not just in the suffering and pain, but also in sympathetic joy.  To feel joy in the happiness others experience is, again, a “being with” – free from enmity, jealousy, competition.  This empathy is what people report from their Sharing Circle experiences here in this congregation, and it comes from a deep listening to one another, through the fullness of life, the invitation to bring all of oneself to the circle, leaving nothing behind.

Finally, knowing that life is both bitter and sweet … keeps us honest.  What do I mean?

As I prepare to take my leave from you, many of you have spoken of the sweetness of our time together. And I am most grateful for your appreciations.

Some of you have also spoken about what has been bitter, and I am just as grateful for those sharings.

Why?

By most measures – we have shared a successful ministry together. But it has not always been all sweet.  For my part, I know that I have had an occasional bout of, shall we say, stubbornness, a willfulness about doing things in a particular way that I know has contributed to conflict and frustration.  And I have sometimes expressed irritation and exasperation in less-than-sanguine ways (I am sorry about the way I pounded the table at that Council meeting a few months ago …) thus not heeding the injunction to “help and not to hinder” right relationship.  Perhaps most “bitter,” I have, more than once, caused hurt. Never intentionally, but for those I hurt, I know the feelings were still painful.  Those are times I did not live up to the call to heal and not to harm, and they are as real as any other part of my ministry.

I say these things now to keep us honest, about the fullness of our time together.

I say them as a reminder that, ministers, like the Velveteen Rabbit, are made real by love – but perhaps unlike stuffed animals, we are also made real by imperfection.

And, I say these things now because, at least for me, and I hope, too, for you, real as it is, this “bitter” does not overshadow all the sweetness we’ve shared –

The completion of this wonderful meetinghouse – and its more extensive use by the larger community each and every year we have been here –

The journey we’ve been on to become a Welcoming Congregation, doors wide open to all, regardless of sexual orientation –

The spiritual home you will continue to dream and make real, including a place where children and youth will find themselves to be at home –

The solid community of care and concern and celebration that has walked with those no longer here, and prepares a place for those yet to discover Unitarian Universalism as lived here on the East End of Long Island –

In fact, I would venture that the bitterness we have experienced – whether sadness or frustration, disappointment or conflict – only, in the end, makes the sweet sweeter …

This is a bittersweet moment for me, my taking my leave of you. But it is one that brings with it both the memory and promise of the fullness of life. Which is what I pray for you as well.

 [1] As told by Ellen J. Langer, in" The Power of Mindful Learning," Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, page 99-100. (1997).

[2] Victoria Safford, Walking Toward Morning (Boston:Skinner House Books, 2003), 21-22.

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