Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 10 September 2017
Two months ago, when we set the plans for this water communion Sunday, we weren’t anticipating hurricanes Harvey, Irma or Jose, or the 40 million people in South Asia facing the aftermath of epic floods, or the people of Mexico responding to a major earthquake, or historic forest fires out west. Much of this has happened just in the past few weeks.
So let us a take a moment to acknowledge the fragile balance we share with the oceans and rivers that surround us. Let us also acknowledge our relationship to the earth and her climate — recognizing the role we play in climate change and the power this earth has to change our lives in an instant. May we remember all the lives that have been lost and the millions of people struggling across the world to rebuild their lives.
Breathe with me. Mourn with me. Pray with me. Amen.
There’s this story you’ve probably heard before. Someone, a teacher or a minister, stands before a group of students or a congregation with a jar, some big rocks and a bag of sand. The challenge is to try to get everything to fit inside the jar. So, let’s just say I’m the minister, and the first thing I do is pour all the sand into the jar. Of course, then the big rocks won’t fit. So I pour out the sand and I start over. This time I put the big rocks in first, then I pour in the sand — and of course everything fits.
The moral of the story, I think, is pretty obvious: you need to make the big things in your life the priority, and then you’ll have room for all the small things. You might laugh, but I admit that I think of this story every time I have to fly and I try to pack all my toiletries into that one tiny bag the airlines allow you to take with your carryon luggage. Every time the bag doesn’t close, I say to myself, “Oh, yeah, right. Put the big things in first.”
The thing about the story of the jar and the sand is that it somehow assumes you’ll figure out how to make everything fit. But, really, so often everything doesn’t fit, and then you have to make the hard choice of letting something go. Temporarily or permanently. I think of the painful decisions people are forced to make about what to take and what to leave behind when fleeing a war or a natural disaster. As someone said to me recently about their family members who lost everything in hurricane Harvey, “They got out with their lives. That’s all that really matters.”
Whenever I’m feeling tired, or overwhelmed, someone is sure to suggest that there must be something I can let go of. And, of course, they’re right. I know there are lots of things I could let go of, that matter much less than my well-being, than my life. Yet I can find it so hard to let go of certain things. Beyond the tasks and the things in our lives, and even the relationships, there are all the feelings we carry with us. The feelings of resistance, of inflexibility, or our own expectations of who we are supposed to be — all those things that we know we would be so much better off if we just let them go.
Yet we cling to them for dear life, or we think we’ve resolved them and then they somehow reappear when we least expect them to reappear. You know how it goes: “Hello bad feeling. I thought I’d gotten rid of you! Can’t you get lost?! Aren’t we done?”
This summer I really did pare things down. I narrowed everything down to two big things: my family and my health. And yeah, sometimes I checked my emails on my phone, even with the auto-responder on. But I stepped away from my computer, because honestly, I spend too much time hunched over a computer, and that’s killing me. It’s also on the list of things that I find nearly impossible to let go of, because I’m a minister and a writer, and I love my computer.
It took me a while to wind things down, but then I let go and I walked. I walked the dog. I hiked. Later in August, David and I drove to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, and we hiked every day. It was balm for my soul. Out in the wilderness I found myself reconnecting with the core of who I am. It didn’t come in words. It didn’t come in amazing revelations. It just was. And I just was.
We saw herons and bald eagles. We heard coyotes howling at night. At the end of the Skyline Trail in the Cape Breton Highlands, we stood looking out at the vastness of the ancient mountains long softened by time and now covered by grasslands. We watched the sun sinking into the ocean and then we walked through wild fields and strange groves of birch trees whose branches and leaves had been consumed as far as the moose can reach. My one regret, my one wish, was to see a moose standing in its natural habitat — from a distance.
If you read my newsletter column, you know what comes next. But let me tell you the story anyway, in my spoken words.
It was a breathtakingly beautiful afternoon, but in the exceptional heat of the day, the moose were probably laying low. Then, as the sun went down and the air began to cool, we turned toward the trailhead, and there she was: a majestic mamma moose with her baby. She was munching contentedly on birch leaves while her calf was nearly hidden by the brush a few yards away. A small crowd of hikers stood admiring the pair at a close but comfortable distance. Then the mamma moose (cow is the technical term) raised her head and for a moment she stared at the crowd.
“Move on,” she seemed to say. “You’ve seen enough.” The crowd respectfully backed away and continued on, leaving the moose and her calf to graze in peace.
Later that night I read a short story, “Mugged by a Moose” by Matt Jackson, that reminded me that human and moose encounters are not always so idyllic. In one part of the story, two young men taunt a moose in the wild, causing it to charge. Rushing for safety, one man climbs a tree, while the other runs into a cave.
The moose charges the cave, its antlers rattling the rocks. When the moose retreats backwards, the man in the cave jumps out. The moose charges again and the man jumps back into the cave. This in-and-out dance repeats several times, until the man in the tree yells, “Just stay in the cave and let the moose calm down!”
“No way am I staying in the cave!” yells the other man. “There’s a bear in there!”
This story seems like a metaphor for the times we’re living in. Even as David and I wandered through the serenity and solitude of the Cabot Trail, theoverwhelming events of the summer still managed to pour into the container of calm we had created for ourselves. Devastating floods in the US, Bangladesh and India, fuelled by rising sea temperatures; terrifying nuclear tests in North Korea; heartbreaking blatant racism and fascism leading to the loss of a life in Charlottesville, Virginia. To make a list is always dangerous, you could shout out the rest. You know how devastating and unrelenting the news has been.
I think of that man running in and out of the cave, and that’s what it’s like today. We are caught between a rock and a hard place. Ou on est entre deux chaises comme on dirait en français, On est entre deux roches. We are caught between two rocks and high tide is pouring in and we have no clear exit to dry land.
I think of that jar with the rocks, the priorities that we need to set, and the things that we need to let go of, and, well, it’s not easy to figure out. We could let go of many things: Hatred; racism; unearned privilege; selfishness and economic inequality; human inflexibility when it comes to saving the planet; our nuclear arsenals, and the conviction that toughness is the only answer. This is another list that could go on and on. My question is, are these the rocks in the containers of our lives, or the sand that we pour in between? As I look at the current state of the world, I find myself thinking about where I’ve personally failed, where I didn’t set my priorities, where I hung on too tight to one thing when I could have been focused on something else critical to the health of the world that really needed to change.
And then I step back and I acknowledge that there are few things I can change on my own. All I know is that I don’t want to let go of love or hope. That’s what keeps me in community. That’s why we do this water communion each year. It’s not just about walking through the motions, or repeating the words that we will recognize our kinship in spirit and in need. We truly have a responsibility to live out that kinship through what we do together.
If you come only on Sundays, that’s great — and I get it. Life is busy. But remember that it’s hard to build relationships or community at coffee hour. Get involved if you can. I see deep relationships forming in our monthly Exploration Groups, in the choir, in our Caring Network and in so many other groups and activities here. Ask me if you need help getting connected here.
This year, I’m reaching out to you to be there for each other and for me. We don’t know what the future will bring, but I think we can be pretty sure that there are more shock waves to come, waves of change in the world that we will have to face together. And I know that we can be very set in our ways, in our different beliefs and we can be a bit quirky and maybe even a bit prickly at times. But I challenge you to begin with love for the people around you. Every one of us is here because we need love, because we need hope, because we need community, whether we admit it or not. It sounds so simple, but building and maintaining community is very hard to do.
This is what I’m asking of you and myself: To completely let go of our judgements and expectations. To open our hearts to the people around us. I mean truly open our hearts to the people right here in this sanctuary. Look around. This is your community. Welcome each other in, because we need each other.
While I was in Cape Breton, I got this urgent text from a member here. She wrote to tell me that there had been a micro-burst in NDG. Girouard Park had been destroyed and a lot of people were without electricity, she said. Then she asked me, “Would it be ok if I opened the church to anyone in the community who needs to charge their phones or make some food?”
“Go ahead,” I told her — and I confess, I didn’t check in with the board or anyone else.
That same day, a young adult who hadn’t been here for ages, wrote to me desperately seeking support for a friend who was struggling after the birth of a new baby. I was able to mobilize the Caring Network from a distance, and suddenly there was a team of surrogate grandmothers helping out. Every time someone thinks of this community as a place to seek help, I’m very grateful. That’s love and that’s hope in action. These are the big rocks that we need to put into the container of our lives before we pour in the small stuff.
In challenging times, we need one another to find solace, to find answers and to take action. You are my community, my spiritual home, and I need you!