Our guest blogger today is Sheldon Pratt, who delivered this sermon yesterday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Loudoun (Virginia). I believe his message applies in any sort of religious community.
Call to Worship
My house says to me, “Do not leave me, for here dwells your past.”
And the road says to me, “Come and follow me, for I am your future.”
And I say to both my house and the road, “I have no past, nor have I a future.
If I stay here, there is a going in my staying; and if I go there is a staying in my going.
Only love and death change all things.
― Khalil Gibran
Change. Change has many meanings: a change of clothes, some change in your pocket. But this morning I’m speaking about a Change of Heart.
In one form or another, change is all around us. Our lives are made up of changes. Some we notice, and even mark with special ceremonies and celebrations: weddings for example. I was fortunate enough to attend a wedding earlier this month. A wedding is one of the very few times when we are truly surrounded by love, and know it. Love that is focused, and shared, and made visible. When the distillation of joy is so complete, and it is expressed so purely, everyone present knows that their lives have truly changed.
Most of the changes in our lives occur without such fanfare (let alone champagne), but they do occur. And when change does occur because of something we didn’t specifically request, we tend to view it as a negative. A new traffic light interrupts the drive to work. A favorite restaurant closes. A friend moves away. Our reaction is often, “Why in the world did they do that?” Or, “How in the world could they do that?” (with an unsaid, “…to me?”)
We’re all familiar with these external changes over which we had no control, which affect our lives but about which we can do nothing. These are the kinds of changes we just have to accept if we are not going to sink into the bog of bitterness or the swamp of self-pity.
Accepting changes like the ones I just described may take only getting over it, or becoming used to it, or adjusting one’s attitude. And it may only take a few days. But what about more consequential changes?
The loss of a job?
Or a limb?
Or a loved one?
Accepting those sorts of changes requires consciously changing oneself to recognize that the world has changed, and learning how to BE in that changed world. In other words, because something outside ourselves in the world has changed, WE have to change. And for most of us, this is not easy. I know for myself, it’s something I actively resist doing.
Why is that? What makes me cling to the way it’s always been even though it’s not that way anymore? One reason may be because it never really was that way in the first place. I may have created my own version of the way things are that suited me. In fact, I know I do just this. I create a version of my world and arrange things within it to suit my preferences and prejudices. And doing this takes a significant amount of effort to create and maintain. So when something intrudes with inconvenient facts that are at odds with my vision, I fight back. I dismiss them, or offer counterarguments. (Always well-reasoned ones. Just ask me.) And this resistance is often subconscious. Which doesn’t make it less effective. It simply makes it harder for me to understand why things aren’t right. I’ve built a nice, cozy world that doesn’t include the things I don’t like. The result? I’m unhappy, but don’t know why.
Or, in the case of changes I can’t just ignore, I do know why. But unless and until I’m willing to accept them, to include instead of exclude them in my nice, but maybe no longer so cozy, world, they’ll continue to annoy, or nag, or shout at me until I do. Again, I’m less happy, but at least (I tell myself) I know why; it’s their fault.
But speaking of whose “fault” it is, here’s a wonderful perspective on that:
We are taught you must blame your father, your sisters, your brothers, the school, the teachers — but never blame yourself. It’s never your fault. But it’s always your fault, because if you wanted to change, you’re the one who has got to change.
― Katharine Hepburn
Which leads to the other kind of change I wanted to talk about. The changes we choose (or choose not) to make. As many have said much more eloquently than I ever could, if we want our lives and our world to change, it is we who must make that change. We who must BE that change. It’s no good expecting someone else to do it, for two reasons: 1) you have no control over whether someone else changes, and 2) most people don’t want to change anyway. So that just leaves each of us to do the changing.
Whether it’s our health (eat less – exercise more),
or our attitude toward others (bark less – wag more),
or how we treat our loved ones (me less – you more),
the power to make things different, to CHANGE things, lies within, and solely within, each of us. No one can change me, except me.
Which is not to say that changes are easy. Or fun. Or even comfortable. In fact, most changes worth making are fairly, or even extremely, un-comfortable. We all tend to find our comfort zone and then try to stay in it. Anything that takes us out of it feels wrong. And we’ll resist the very changes we need to make.
Now, if we were all people of exceptionally strong moral fiber, we’d all do it anyway. But most of us can use all the help we can get. I know I can. And one of the places I look for that help in accepting the changes I can’t control, and embracing the ones I want to make, is here, this community of people looking for change. And I believe that’s what we are. For why come to worship service if nothing’s going to change? At the very least, I know I come hoping to see someone who makes me remember how good people can be (and I can always find lots of those here) and to hear something that makes sense (though it’s not necessarily the sermon) and to be changed for having done it.
So I come expecting a change. And I think most of us come, most of the time, expecting a specific kind of change. A change in the way we think about ourselves, about our world, and about our place in it. A change in our spirit. A change for the better. I believe that this is a place to join with others who believe that changes for the better, in each of us, are possible. People who are committed to making them happen.
In the early ’60s, a Unitarian in Chicago (this was before the merger with the Universalists) who was on the board of his church had been arguing all night with another long-time member about actively working to change their all-white congregation to an integrated one. This was as contentious for many then as welcoming LGBT people has been for some more recently. Finally, in exasperation, he almost shouted, “If we can’t find a place for everyone, then what’s a church for?”
After a moment of reflection, the other replied, “I guess the purpose of church is to change people like me.”
To turn from merely acquiescing to a change we cannot control, to consciously deciding to make a change (perhaps in opposition to a change we see in our world, perhaps in support of one) is a crucial step. But the intellectual decision will remain just that, intellectual, unless joined by an emotional commitment to action. And no one can make any worthwhile, lasting change, without embracing it. For it is only when Thought is coupled with Will that anything changes.
So like that suddenly aware Chicagoan, we must each learn to accept or embrace change.
We can do so grudgingly, or willingly.
With denial, or recognition.
In anger, or in love.
But the only way we can prevent change (or pretend that it doesn’t occur) is by building walls around ourselves. Walls which cut us off from each other, and from our own lives.
Accepting the changes we can’t control means keeping both our minds and our hearts open to the realities around us. Especially to others’ realities. Those are just as important as our own, and based just as much on wish and whimsy. And have just as much need to be true.
And embracing the only changes we can control, the ones within ourselves, means opening our minds and hearts even further. Opening them to the possibility of becoming different, of becoming more than we are today. And this we cannot do without change.
As the 13th century Persian poet Rumi said:
Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.
Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.