Making the Most of Muck (sermon)

(I usually post my sermons the same day but life ~ and some ambivalence ~ intervened, but here it is: LAST Sunday’s sermon, just before the new Sunday arrives.  Delivered December 29, 2013 at the Universalist Church of West Hartford, CT.)

Call to Worship

This morning’s call to worship comes to us from the poet, Gregory Orr and his book entitled, Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved:

When I open the book

I hear the poets whisper and weep,

Laugh and lament.


In a thousand languages

They say the same thing:

“We lived.  The secret of life

Is love, which casts its wing

Over all suffering, which takes

In its arms the hurt child,

Which rises green from the fallen seed.”

Gregory Orr

Let us gather together this morning to worship.



Part I

I live in Northampton, Massachusetts, which is a wonderful place to live.  I have loved raising my two children, who are now nearly 18 and nearly 20 there.  It is the home of Smith College.  I don’t know how many of you are familiar with that campus.  If not, I encourage you to visit, particularly the popular greenhouse, any time of the year, but especially in March, when every year they have a two-week long bulb show that gives a vivid, fragrant reminder that spring will come again. 

On the campus is Paradise Pond.  Pretty often, there are efforts to reduce the silt and sediment build up.  The means seem to change year to year, new technology implemented, but always the same ends: contain the sediment while letting clean water go back into the pond.

I’m envious.  I wish there was some technology to clean up the muck of the world, and if not the world, at least my little life.  A technology that lets stay the clear water of my life while taking away the muck, no disturbance to those around me or to myself, nothing messy about the process at all.


A poem from Jane Hirshfield, called The Weighing


The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.

As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

Since it is the end of the year, since I am a guest in this place, the rhythm of this morning’s worship is going to be a bit different than what you may be used to.   Feel free to blame me, the newbie, and to fire off an email of annoyance.  Or to let this be a chance for practice opening to the unknown, for a new year is nigh upon us and though we may think we can guess at what lays ahead, it is a fool’s errand.

As the past weeks, and months, and years, and lifetimes have shown, there are events and topics when prose just doesn’t come close enough to be satisfying.  So today’s “sermon” will be a creative mixture of prose and poetry, a dance into the new year.  It is my hope that the poems I have chosen to share with you today will speak an eloquence my own words can only hope to approximate.

The poem, Testimony, by Rebecca Baggett.  The epigraph reads, (for my daughters)

  I want to tell you that the world
is still beautiful.
I tell you that despite
children raped on city streets, 
shot down in school rooms,
despite the slow poisons seeping
from old and hidden sins
into our air, soil, water,
despite the thinning film
that encloses our aching world. 
Despite my own terror and despair.
I want you to know that spring
is no small thing, that
the tender grasses curling
like a baby’s fine hairs around 
your fingers are a recurring
miracle. I want to tell you
that the river rocks shine
like God, that the crisp 
voices of the orange and gold
October leaves are laughing at death,
I want to remind you to look
beneath the grass, to note
the fragile hieroglyphs
of ant, snail, beetle. I want
you to understand that you
are no more and no less necessary
than the brown recluse, the ruby-
throated hummingbird, the humpback 
whale, the profligate mimosa.
I want to say, like Neruda,
that I am waiting for
“a great and common tenderness”,
that I still believe
we are capable of attention,
that anyone who notices the world
must want to save it.

Part II

There are many ways to want to save the world.  So many ways to turn our attention on this heart-breaking, heart-healing task.  I want to share with you today one way that has existed for over a millennium. 

In the tenth century, a man in India named Atisha traveled to Indonesia to learn a practice that centered on using difficult circumstances to move towards attaining enlightenment.  He then brought this practice to Tibet, where it acquired the name, Tonglen.   In the 12th century, Geshe Chakawa recorded his experience of practicing Tonglen: most of his students were lepers.  According to Tibetan lore, Tonglen healed them from that incurable disease.

Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun, speaks of Tonglen being taught nowadays in hospice settings and other situations where there is no hope of cure.   She says that Tonglen isn’t taught because it is believed it can cure AIDS or cancer like the Tibetan story of Geshe Chakawa’s lepers, but because it heals the spirit.  The pain of cancer, of AIDS, of a terminal illness does not end, but the suffering can be transformed.  The Buddha said something like that: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is not.”  Perhaps the lepers were healed not of their pain, but of their suffering?


A poem by Anne Sexton called Courage

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of t
he roses
and was transformed.

when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

Here is a description, by Matt Flickstein, of the actual practice of Tonglen:

With our in-breath we breathe in the sufferings of other living beings, and with our out breath we send forth our healing thoughts and feelings of health, happiness, and good wishes. This practice can feel very threatening for some people since it feels like we are taking in physical, psychological, and spiritual poisons, and at the same time breathing out our own source of good health and joy. Paradoxically, this powerful and effective process actually increases our inner well-being as our hearts learn to transform misery or suffering, into a profound experience of love and peace.

One Buddhist teacher with whom I spoke about Tonglen said rather matter of factly that it should not be done unless under the guidance of a teacher, it is that powerful.  I get that.  I bet you do too.  ‘Cause it does seem just a bit more than counterintuitive:

I have to breathe in suffering?  Not happiness, but suffering?  Okay, okay, I hear that part about breathing out again, but, uhh, what if some of it gets stuck?  What if I get stuck with someone else’s – or god forbid – the world’s suffering? Not so sure I want to do that.

You can rest easy: actually practicing Tonglen in the pews is not part of today’s service. Yet the concept of Tonglen might guide us and it might even give us a name for something we already know.

Several years ago, I was walking in Boston and saw a white man in a business suit, dapper and uptight looking, walking.  It was cold and misting.   In a split second, he slipped.  He caught himself, but just barely.  He righted himself, and quickly kept walking, trying to act like nothing had happened.  Without thought, even though I have to admit to some prejudices against uptight, business-suited white men, I began to breathe for him. 

As I did, I felt the uncomfortable adrenaline rush of his body, the cold fear of what might have happened, but hadn’t.  I breathed, over and over, wishing him to breathe, wishing him to slow, wishing him well. I had never heard of Tonglen, but I did know of shared humanity.  I sensed some kind of force that bound me to him.


For What Binds Us by Jane Hirshfield:

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.

The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down —
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.

There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest —

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

Part III

Pema Chodron speaks of people who “do” Tonglen long before they ever hear of the practice.  It is what I think is happening in this section of a poem by Suheir Hammad, a Palestinian poet and performance artist, who was born in Jordan and grew up in this country.  The poem is called First Writing Since (Poem on the Crisis of Terror) and was written in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  This stanza comes as part of a long litany of reasons for gratitude.

thank you to the woman who saw me brinking my cool and blinking back tears. she opened her arms before she asked “do you want a hug?” a big white woman, and her embrace was the kind only people with the warmth of flesh can offer. i wasn’t about to say no to any comfort. “my brother’s in the navy,” i said. “and we’re arabs”. “wow, you got double trouble.” word. 

Though it is hugs, not breathing, I think this is Tonglen.  Taking on someone else’s suffering and transforming it through empathy, the ability to see our common humanity, to see what commonly binds us together.  The pain is still there, but the suffering is lessened.


Now a poem from Alison Luterman, called

Invisible Work 

Because no one could ever praise me enough,
because I don’t mean these poems only
but the unseen
unbelievable effort it takes to live
the life that goes on between them,
I think all the time about invisible work.
About the young mother on Welfare
I interviewed years ago,
who said, “It’s hard.
You bring him to the park,
run rings around yourself keeping him safe,
cut hot dogs into bite-sized pieces for dinner,
and there’s no one
to say what a good job you’re doing,
how you were patient and loving
for the thousandth time even though you had a headache.”
And I, who am used to feeling sorry for myself
because I am lonely,
when all the while,
as the Chippewa poem says, I am being carried
by great winds across the sky,
thought of the invisible work that stitches up the world day and night,
the slow, unglamorous work of healing,
the way worms in the garden
tunnel ceaselessly so the earth can breathe
and bees ransack this world into being,
while owls and poets stalk shadows,
our loneliest labors under the moon.

There are mothers
for everything, and the sea
is a mother too,
whispering and whispering to us
long after we have stopped listening.
I stopped and let myself lean
a moment, against the blue
shoulder of the air. The work
of my heart
is the work of the world’s heart.
There is no other art.


 “I … thought of the invisible work that stitches up the world day and night, the slow, unglamorous work of healing….The work of my heart is the work of the world’s heart.  There is no other art.” 

Just what is this invisible work of the world?  It’s recognizing the common humanity of someone AND acting on it with your words, with your empathetic gesture, with your political activism, with your big, fleshy hug… and with your breath.   Like Anne Sexton told us: It’s picking the scabs off your own heart and wringing it out like a sock so that you might wake to the wings of roses and find your suffering, and that of others, transformed. 

Let us do this invisible work.  Let us do it for ourselves, for each other, for all in this world, whether we know them or not, whether we like them or not, whether we agree with their politics or not, whether they have given us pain or pleasure.  Let us do this invisible work most assuredly for the victims, but let us be sure to also do it for the perpetrators.  Let us breathe in suffering and breathe out relief.

There is an art to practicing whatever form of Tonglen you choose.  It is not the kind of art that demands talent, just willingness and an open heart.  Not an unscathed heart (if such a thing exists), but an open heart.  The poet Jane Hirshfield reminded

So few grains of happiness measured against all the dark and still the scales balance.  The world asks of us only the strength we have and we give it.  Then it asks more, and we give it.

Though there might be science and technology on the side of mucking out Paradise Pond, there is no science to mucking out the human experience.  It is neither scientific nor easy, but it is artful – to find the strength when we have already given all, to take in others’ suffering when we already have enough of our own, thank you very much. 

But what else is there?  What else can we do?   The work of my heart is the work of the world’s heart.  When it comes down to it, there really is no other art.

Let us end with a poem in the form of a blessing.  This one comes to us from John O’Donohue, written for his mother, who died two years ago this December 31st.  He predeceased her by several years:

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.





Anne Sexton, The Awful Rowing Towards God

Jane Hirshfield, Of Gravity & Angels and October Palace

Matt Flickstein, “Tonglen”

Suheir Hammad, “First Writing Since (Poem on the Crisis of Terror)”

Alison Luterman, The Largest Possible Life

Rebecca Baggett Women’s Uncommon Prayers

Gregory Orr, Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved

O’Donohue, John.  To Bless the Space Between Us


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