Monday, February 10, 2014

Of Fallow Fields

Of Fallow Fields
A homily for the 2014 Southwest Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) chapter, given February 8, 2014 at the Briarwood Retreat Center, Argyle, Texas

Capsule Order of Service:
Hymn teach: Return Again
Opening Hymn: Turn! Turn! Turn! (Ecclesiastes, with an assist from Pete Seeger)
Chalice Lighting: from Kathleen McTigue
Story for All Ages: Retelling of Demi’s The Empty Pot, with other possibilities why a seed might not germinate (referenced within homily)
Meditation hymn: Return Again (Shlomo Carlebach)
Offering hymn:Woyaya ((Sol Amarifio , arr. Ysaye Barnwell)
Benediction from Earth Bound: Meditations For All Seasons by Brian Nelson

We have lived in my house for nearly twenty years now, and the little enclosed porch out front has never been in good shape.  When we had a landscaper come out to do some re-sodding, we also talked about pulling down the ivy around the porch.

Well, if you give a mouse a cookie... once the ivy was cut back, we had to get to the root system to really be rid of it. So I started pulling up the half-rotting, half black wood of the deck.  It took my sons and me some four hours just to rip out the top layer.  And I was excited to discover a large half-moon paver directly outside the sliding doors-- we had never imagined there would be something beneath the wood.

Still, I did not know how, with my limited skills and tools and strength, to deal with the frame of the deck, and the TWELVE posts sunk in concrete.  So I waited for my father to come.

It was probably another eight hours, over a few days, for us to fight the thick gumbo clay, to finagle the posts and frame out of the ground.  We took one trip to the home-improvement store for a sledgehammer to break up the concrete.  We took another trip to get a special sort of axe to really lay waste to the ivy's root system--can you believe that it had put out some tendrils thicker than my forearm?  We found ancient Diet Coke cans with pull-off tabs, long denuded tennis balls, all sorts of plastic toys, and a pair of slippers that had been no obstacle to the rampaging roots.

When we had removed as much as we could, I was eager to get to building.  To put in a simple stone patio, find some nice pots and plants... hang the mobile dad had made me.  Maybe think about a water feature, and what two chairs might fit in the little space.  Oh, and a cute table to hold a beverage...

And my father shook his head.  Nope.  You need to just let it sit awhile.  Let the rain help things settle and even out.  Figure out then where you might need to move dirt, remove dirt... Know what the drainage needs would be.  Figure out if that root system was really and truly dead, before it might come back and take over everything again.

I probably don’t need to tell you how hard it was not to order the stones, to
get things back into shape and carry on.  How I worry sometimes that I will forget all about it and not get back to it.

But I know my father had a point--I need to give the roots time to die back, give the clods of dirt and bits of concrete time to settle.  To let things get back to even before I can add anything atop.

The picture here is my front patio right now.  It’s ugly.  Not at all welcome. It is hard to imagine where I will set my chairs.  Hard to imagine a suitable home for the copper fountain my artisan father is creating.

And, you know--sometimes life is that way.  Babies don't grow and get born all at once.  Relationships--well, let's just say I am glad I did not get married at the first sign of puppy love. Skills and cultures, change and grief…  They take time, and sometimes they take some time off. Some time when you just don't think too hard for a while.

Sometimes this is the way things are in our congregations and programs. 

It goes without saying that we could, like many of the children in our story, find another way to get a breathtaking flower in that pot.  We are resourceful and loving and we want things to be beautiful and inviting. 

But that is not our work to do—it is a lousy fix for our congregations, and an even worse one for our own precious souls.

Here’s the thing—as religious educators, we are not there to ‘FIX’ things.  We are where we are to help our congregations grow their souls. That takes a long longer, and a lot more intention.

We can help to nourish the soil.  We can suggest better cultivation practices.  Sometimes we will get our hands dirty—some days our nails will ache from being forced back by grit and tiny stones.

But we do not know every need of every seed.  It might be that they need the fire, the cold, the fungus, to break through, and get them where they need to go.

We need to step back, even if things are ugly or not quite right, and let it just be.  Obviously, we get rid of the nails and forgotten glass, the surface trash, and we put away our tools so they do not rust in the rain.  What will settle out?  What new possibilities might we find with a long steady rain?

This concept of taking a fallow time—it is exceedingly counter-cultural for us these days. Life is about the instant solution, and when it can’t be instant, well, you better work work work every moment until it is done.

This book of prayers <God of a Hundred Names> has at the front a section on WORK.
<read a couple of marked examples from John Wesley, Leonardo da Vinci, Winifred Holtby>

As Unitarian Universalists, we fall so quickly into this trap. “Don’t just talk about it—DO it!”  “Deeds, not creeds!” “I want to be with people who immerse in the task…” As Susan Smith puts it, sometimes we are better at the Utilitarian Worth of every person than at the INHERENT worth.

We feel guilty when we’re not actively working. A day off?  It feels sinful, when really, it is a requirement of most any faith tradition.

And when is the last time you heard someone say in a meeting, “Let’s take some time to pray on this, and come back to it on another day”? 

Nature, people, congregations—so little is instant.
If it seems easy, you’re either really lucky or not paying attention.

Rarely is it always pretty.
Often it’s hard.
And sometimes we just have to sit back, and wait for what will be.

Author and educator Anne Hillman writes:
We look with uncertainty
Beyond the old choices for
Clear-cut answers
To a softer, more permeable aliveness
Which is every moment
At the brink of death;
For something new is being born in us
If we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
Awaiting that which comes...
Daring to be human creatures.
Vulnerable to the beauty of existence
Learning to love.

Let me read those last three lines again--
Daring to be human creatures.
Vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.