The Ordeal: In the Belly of the Whale

Sermon 3/6/16 – HJ7 – The Ordeal: In the Belly of the Whale by Karen Andersen

The story of Perseus, in Greek mythology, is fairly well known in our culture, and Perseus is best remembered for his greatest ordeal: the battle with Medusa. It’s not that Perseus’s story doesn’t contain all manner other important challenges and ordeals, but that battle in particular, is the scene we remember; the image of the seemingly undefeatable snake-headed monster being cut down by the hero. And how does Perseus achieve this? You know the story…how does he find a way to meet this powerful Gorgon in battle? (Look to someone in the crowd to answer)
That’s right…he used his shield as a mirror. The symbolism is clear, and it gets right to the heart of the lesson of part 7 of our Hero’s Journey series: The Ordeal. I think that the most important symbolism about The Ordeal is more about the mirror than the Gorgon.
In Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he titles the chapter about The Ordeal stage of the Hero’s Journey, “In the Belly of the Whale.” That phrase, for many people, might first bring to mind the story of Jonah from the Bible. I never liked that story, though, growing up Catholic. It didn’t make sense to me that a supposedly loving God could be such an authoritarian brute. The lesson my young mind took away from it was DO WHAT GOD SAYS OR ELSE! And Jonah doesn’t really fit the role of the hero to me; being forced by God to sit in the stinky belly of an actual whale for a few days to “think about it,” and then being summarily expelled from said whale, doesn’t feel much like something you want to sing a song about around a fire, or brag about at a bar.
Around here, thoughts of ordeals involving whales tend to go in another direction entirely, so I couldn’t help but choose a pertinent reading today from Moby Dick. Melville is a master of the ordeal; not just the physical struggle, like the details of men landing a whale from a small boat, but the mental and spiritual struggles of ordinary men in constant close proximity to death. He has a way of describing a person at his lowest that sounds as though it comes from a personal place of darkness, a place of experience. Our hero, call him Ishmael, right in the first paragraph of the first chapter, describes a feeling that every one of us has felt at some point:
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
“Going to sea” and “stopping before coffin warehouses” may be metaphorical for most of us, but we understand a damp, drizzly November in the soul just fine, not to mention an occasional urge to knock someone’s hat off. As Melville said, “All men live enveloped in whale lines.” And this is what I’d like to talk about today; not how larger-than-life heroes battle dragons and beasts, but rather, the skirmishes that take place in dark corners of our minds, the fights against fears and failures, the struggle with our own spirit, the wrestling with our will, and the losses that gnaw at our hearts. These things can just as easily drag us down into the pit, or toss us into the abyss, as any fierce beast.
So, sometimes we’re pushed into the pit by things beyond our control, like the death of a loved one, or a tree falls through the roof, or a car runs a red light. It’s that really crappy hand tossed at us by that dealer who smiles all the time. I think maybe the bigger, life changing things events and accidents of life are a little easier to cope with, if only because you can name it. “I’m in a funk because my house was foreclosed on and I don’t know what I’m going to do.” You can focus your efforts in overcoming one beast and usually find a decent support group to help when a tragedy strikes, throwing you a line when you need one.
The more insidious beast is the one that’s fashioned from a lot of smaller things that are harder to be specific about. This is where we get phrases like “the last straw,” you know, the one that breaks the camel’s back. A thousand little things are just as heavy as one big thing, but they’re much harder to keep aloft, aren’t they? And then, critical mass is reached, and you can’t hold even one more thing, and when it gets tossed on the pile anyhow, the whole thing comes crashing down. And now you’re in the pit, and you can’t point at anyone one thing and say, “that’s it, that’s the thing I need to deal with so I can pick up all these pieces and get back in the game.” No, it’s much more complicated than that. It’s like a blank puzzle with no border pieces, and you don’t even know where to begin, how to start to put it all back together.
We’ve all been there, church. Sometimes you’re in it for a day, and sometimes its years, but we’ve all been there, at the end of our rope, tight in that halter that Melville talks about. So, when it’s all tumbled down around your feet, how do you cope?
I used to read the classics, like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Aesop’s Fables, Celtic Wondertales, Greek Mythology, and Rudyard Kipling stories to my boys when they were young, and some of the stories were very scary, and rather grim. I read them anyhow, because I loved those stories when I was growing up and wanted to share them. Since the time when my kids were young, a lot of parents have looked at those stories and thought they were unnecessarily violent and brutal. Kids shouldn’t have to think about wolves with long teeth who want to eat them, right? We need to shield them from such awful things! We surely want to give them a happy childhood, but I don’t think we do them any favors by fitting them with blinders early on. Maybe those old stories are meant to be told to our children to help them cope when the wolves inevitably come to blow their house down, and real life comes rushing in.
Because, as much as we need hope, it isn’t enough when we’re in the pit. If hope is a thing with feathers, to cope is a thing with scales and claws. It’s like the weight we feel when we’re in the pit makes us too heavy for mere feathers to fly us out. No, we must scrape and scratch and scrabble our way out.
This is where we develop the skills to cope…there’s a reason they call coping a skill. It’s because we have to learn and develop healthy ways to do it. We often experiment with all manner of unhealthy coping mechanisms before we begin to develop real skill. The classics, of course…excessive smoking, eating, drinking, drugs, sex, and all manner of new-fangled mechanisms like binge-watching Netflix (guilty), playing hours of video games, and living within a bubble of social media.
These are all fine ways to numb the pain, to turn your mind from the chaos, to make the ordeal of living bearable. But if life is just bearable, guess what? You’re still in the pit. So, what skills can we develop to win the battle with ourselves and claw our way out when we’ve fallen in? It will be different for everyone, but one thing that helps across the board is going back to part one of the Hero’s Journey, and decide to leave the same old place. Just picking your head up off the pillow can be hard, but then you can count putting your feet on the floor as a first step. Hoping helps, but it’s essentially passive. Coping is active. Get out of your comfort zone, do something to distract yourself, like you have to do with a kid who needs stitches. Here’s my favorite coping technique: I call it “Shut up and walk.” Leave your phone in the car, and go. Anywhere. Meditation helps for some people. But I think the healthiest way to cope is to do it in a group. When you’re alone in the pit, with a thousand small problems, support won’t always come to you. You have to actively gather your allies. And I’ll tell you right now you probably have many more allies than you think, just by being in this room on a regular basis. The important thing is to poke your head out of the pit and look around, stretch out a hand and see how many hands reach back. Remaining alone in the abyss, eyes to the floor, unmoving, is untenable.
Facing an ordeal is, by nature, difficult. In the abyss, in the belly of the whale, is where we battle our own demons. Think about Perseus and the mirror…in the mirror lies the monster, and one of the most difficult things any of us can undertake is honest self-reflection. The monster is fashioned from all of our fear, hurt, shame, grief; all the deep emotions that pin us down in the pit. And the mirror is foggy to our own eyes, not a true reflection. We don’t see clearly what our faults are, nor do we see clearly what our strengths are. This is why we need others: to help us recognize our strengths and weaknesses, and give us a hand up. The ordeal is all around us, all the time; we live enveloped in whale-lines. And the Hero’s Journey keeps whispering the same thing in our ear along the way, even in the darkest places: This is our story. We all experience these challenges and ordeals, and if we fight, find good ways to cope, the dragon will be slain, the beast conquered. For now. The story does continue, after all. And remember…rock bottom is the firmest foundation on which to build.

It Aint Easy 1.24.16

Sermon 1.24.16 – It Aint Easy by Karen Andersen
Staples, the office supply company, developed a brilliant ad campaign to get people to shop at their stores. It features a big red button with the word EASY on it. It implies that, if you shop at Staples, they will somehow make some part of your life, probably having to do with office supplies, easier. And they probably do; but I’m not here to sell office supplies. I wanted to use that example because it deliciously encompasses exactly what most of us want from anything, least of all office supplies: a quick fix that makes things easy.
I know I’d love to have a big red button that made everything in my life easier. Wouldn’t we all? Well of course! Our modern technologies have given us some wonderful “big red buttons” to make our lives “easier.” I utilize the tools of technology all the time, why wouldn’t I? It’s amazing, and still seems almost like magic, and we take it for granted now, that the person on our team who lives on the other side of the country or the world, can take part in the class or the meeting and add their unique perspective to our own. But many of our “big red buttons” have already manifested a slew of unintended negative side-effects. Think about how cellphones have changed our world. They’re great, for sure, but they have a long list of downsides, from crime to cancer to car crashes, not to mention the disconnection of being always connected.
The techno-frenzy has also developed a culture with the expectation of immediate satisfaction. Easy is the new normal. God knows there are plenty of ways to get that quick-fix these days. Don’t want to go toe to toe with the throngs of people Christmas shopping? Well, you can do it all online now and have the packages guaranteed delivery in time for the big day. When Crystal couldn’t be here for last month’s Board meeting, no problem! We Skyped her in from North Carolina. Easy.
There’s tremendous pressure in our society to be connected, to be caught up in the flow of information and communication. And although it might make things easier in one respect, in another, our technologies have made us ever-anxious for the next thing, ever-expectant to be on the same fast-moving page as everyone else. C’mon, people…it’s EASY! Well some things may be easier, but the feelings we get from this kind of fast-paced communication is often more anxious than easy because it just doesn’t let up. It gets harder and harder to escape from everyone trying to make our lives easier.
We might stop for a moment and ask ourselves why. Why do we have such a drive to make our lives easier? It isn’t just because we’re lazy or to free up time to play as well as work, or because we’re incredibly innovative, though those are all on the short list. Essentially, we want to make things easier because, even with all of our technology, life is hard. Life is good, but life is also hard, so we grasp onto anything that eases the pain of it, the inconvenience of it all sometimes. It’s natural that we do so.
But don’t think that means that we don’t know that, as my dad used to say, “Anything worth having is worth working for.” We know it. All of us. We know it. So, I find it kind of…sad clown funny that so many politicians running for office (and I’m not just talking about the circus of presidential candidates, but most every politician everywhere, in every time period in our history) loves to tout big ideas that will somehow easily fix some very long-standing and complicated problems. Get your boots on, because the manure is getting thick, when anyone trying to fix a difficult problem begins their pitch about how to solve it with, “That’s easy, you just…” Because he or she obviously hasn’t thought the problem through or doesn’t grasp the real scope of the problem to begin with. When you’re trying to make decisions for a large and diverse group of people, there are no easy answers or simple solutions.
Our president, Barak Obama, recently gave his final State of the Union address to Congress and to the Country, and lots of it was very hopeful and highlighted his accomplishments and the progress our country has made over the course of his two terms in office. Much of it was what I pretty much expected to hear. But near the end, he made a point that I thought was really important, and so pertinent to the essence of what I want to get at today. After a litany of issues we face that desperately need to be addressed, he said,
“But I can’t do these things on my own. Changes in our political process…that will only happen when the American people demand it. It will depend on you. That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people.
What I’m asking for is hard. It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter.”
He said, “Whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. To stay active in our public life so it reflects the goodness and decency and optimism that I see in the American people every single day.
It won’t be easy. Our brand of democracy is hard…”
That sounds like a pretty simple statement, “Our brand of democracy is hard.” But I think it’s easy to forget that. Our politics is frustrating and messy and there are all manner of things wrong with it; it’s easy to be cynical. But we forget sometimes that governments that run easily are called dictatorships, not democracies. Our kind of democracy, where everyone is free to speak their mind and vote their conscience, is hard. And it’s precious.
We can relate this, easily enough, to being Unitarians. Our churches are meant to be democracies, run by congregations made up of wonderfully diverse, independent thinkers. We’re here because we don’t think there are simple answers when it comes to our spiritual path; we appreciate the freedom to explore, to expose ourselves to a wide variety of ideas, to wrestle with it all, to doubt and question, to change our minds, and grow. This church is a safe and supportive environment in which to challenge everything, and to be challenged. This, too, is precious, though difficult.
We arrive here at part six of our hero’s journey tale: Challenges and Temptations. Our hero has left her home, gathered her resources and allies, crossed her fingers hoping for divine protection, and jumped into the unknown, transitioned into another world entirely. Here, there are obstacles and challenges our hero has never had to deal with, often completely out of her realm of understanding. It can be terrifying. And the temptation…well the biggest temptation, of course, is when facing a tough, maybe even seemingly insurmountable challenge, we are tempted to turn back, to pack it in and go home, forget about the journey, and do the easy thing: give up.
What kind of story is that? Not much of a story; it certainly doesn’t satisfy our inherent respect for the hero who battles dragons, his own and others, fighting to his last breath for something precious. The Hero’s Journey story, in its many forms, speaks to us all so clearly because it shows us that others, even great heroes, face the most terrible things, and are themselves, sometimes tempted to give up, but find the strength to go on, with a little help from their friends. This gives us hope; the kind of hope that overcomes incredible odds, and gets us through impossible situations. Even in the worst of times, I think this archetype manifests deep within our consciousness and helps to make the challenges bearable; that knowledge in the back of our skulls that we are not alone in the struggle, and that others before us have come through, better for it.
This might be one of the most important stages to understand about The Hero’s Journey, because everyone, whether they venture out into the unknown to find themselves or not, faces challenges and temptations. Because we know that this is who we all are. We are strong, weak, smart, stupid, beautiful, ugly, proud, vulnerable, passionate, desperate, simple and complicated people, all at once, all of us.
So think about this: what really shapes us, what is it that gives us character, that makes our story a good one? As in any good story, there will be intense moments of joy, where everything is wonderful, and those happy moments can gird us against the pains of life, and are necessary in a satisfying story. But I think it’s getting through the challenges that really matter. I think being often wrong, and learning from it, is what makes us smarter. Our humiliations are gifts that teach us empathy. Our vulnerabilities are doors to intimate, satisfying relationships. Our failures are the first steps toward triumph.
One of the most illuminating parts of seminary, for me, has been how often I have to describe, in detail, what went wrong in my research, where my methodology was flawed, what constraints were unforeseen, what limitations were inevitable, and what challenged my perceptions. Those considerations of my foibles, my brilliant failures, are what gleaned the most wisdom for me. This is the only way we grow: by accepting our glorious faults, mistakes, temptations, challenges…these are fertilizer. The harvest is a stronger sense of purpose, a deeper compassion for others and connection to the world, and an acceptance that nothing worth having is easy.
Therefore, may we happily stumble, fall, and help each other up again, rising to the challenges together. Because that’s easy enough to do.

1/10/16- With A Little Help From My Friends

Sermon 1/10/16 – Hero’s Journey Pt.6: With A Little Help From My Friends by Karen Andersen
We arrive at part six of our Hero’s Journey theme we’re exploring this year: Gathering Friends and Allies. On the last Sunday of the year I talked about crossing the threshold, a fitting topic for transition into the New Year. And once you’ve gone through the gateway, once you’ve taken that step from the known into the unknown, it’s time to gather your resources and forge ahead.
There’s an old Irish proverb that says, “Two make the road shorter.” In other words, when you travel with a friend, the journey doesn’t seem nearly as long or arduous as it would if we were to walk it alone. Friends and allies are our best resources when facing the unknown. The Hero’s Journey, and the journey of our lives, is joyful and wondrous, to be sure, but there are also long stretches of the road that are treacherous and tedious, if not downright awful. And having friends and allies by our sides makes the good times wonderful and the bad times bearable.
I did lots of walking and thinking about this over the past two weeks, turning over this theme in my head and asking myself the simple questions I wanted to formulate answers to in order to write this sermon: What is an ally? What is a friend? What’s the difference? And why are they so important in the Hero’s story, and in our story?
The first personal definition of an “ally” off the top of my head and from my heart was, “something or someone who helps you maintain your balance.” When I applied that broad brush to my own journey, I quickly saw an interesting distinction. Because when I asked myself who my allies were the first things that came to my mind weren’t people. It was the ocean, and trees, and birds. When I’m out in nature, running my dogs in the woods or on the beach and thinking about sermons, is when I feel surrounded by allies. These things help me, they give me balance. I can imagine that if we really thought about the things that help us maintain our balance, the list might be long and contain a thousand tiny things.
My list of allies included: my dogs and cat, my church and congregation, West Island, Pope’s Island, Marsh Island, the safety of the inner harbor and the many people I row whaleboats with, crows, ducks, particular stones, Mozart’s Requiem, and the entire crew of the starship Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
As you can see, my definition really opens up the possibilities. Think about what helps you and what maintains your balance, take that home to think it on a little, make a list, write it down, and you’ll probably find that you have more allies than you thought. I think the things and the people that lift us and give us energy and light, these are all our allies and they give us a particularly personal sense of equilibrium and stability.
Then what is a friend? “Friend” has become a broader term than it ever was, with people stacking up hundreds and thousands of “friends” on social media. This internet of ours has opened up communications to a point where we can make friends all over the world and never meet them in person. Internet friends are probably more like allies, though. They help, they make us feel part of a whole.
Then there’s a long list of people you know and like, and if someone asked you, “is she a friend of yours?” you would say yes, of course, she’s terrific! You’re friendly, but you don’t know them all that well. You’ve had lots of short conversations, probably under the same circumstances. The next level of friendship is a shorter list, which will contain the people you actually hang out with, go have a beer with after work on Friday, maybe take a hike, go out to eat, or check out a movie or an art opening. But you don’t necessarily call each other on the phone to when you’re depressed or need to vent, or call them up to tell them that you just got a new job, or your baby was just born, and you’re so excited. Though, now with Facebook, and other social media, hundreds of people can see your baby getting weighed, still covered in goo, moments after he’s born. #itsastickyboy. But who are the people you call? When you’re stuck on the side of the road with a blown tire…when it’s moving time…when you really need someone to watch your kids? Who would come sit with you in the emergency room if you called? That tightens up your circle of close friends and family considerably, usually down to just a handful of people.
Our many circles of friends are concentric, coming down to that small inner circle, those people who are with you no matter where your journey leads. Tolkein’s little pack of adventurous Hobbits are a great example, as I read in the opening words. This is in the Fellowship of the Rings, when Merry and Pippen finally catch up to Frodo and Sam, shortly after they’ve left their village. Merry says, “You can trust us to stick to you, through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.” Maybe that’s exactly what a true friend is: someone who refuses to let you face trouble alone.
This brings me to the question, “Why are friends and allies so important to our journey?” I don’t have to come up with a deeply philosophical or spiritual answer for this, because there is some hard science to tell us why. I serendipitously came across a talk from TEDx BeaconStreet earlier this week, filmed in November of last year. It was called “What makes a good life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness,” presented by Robert Waldinger, who is involved in the Study of Adult Development at Harvard, now in its 78th year. It’s the longest longitudinal running study of human development in history. It followed 724 men: one group was comprised of Harvard sophomores, the other group was made up of teenage boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. There are 60 of the original members, most in their 90’s, who have been participating in a plethora of surveys and physical and psychological exams, and evaluations every two years for most of their lives. Waldinger said, “Many of the inner-city Boston men ask us, ‘Why do you keep wanting to study me? My life just isn’t that interesting.’ The Harvard men never asked that question.”
In 2012, George Valiant, who directed the study for more than three decades, published the findings in a book titled, Triumphs of Experience, and there were many interesting results…some who started low on the economic scale ended up very successful, and some who began with all they ever wanted lost everything in the end. Income and education might help you make more money, but it was no gauge for who, at 80, would say they’d led happy lives. The bottom line of what they learned is that, more than any other factor in our development, good relationships make us happier and keep us healthier, in the long run. People who are more closely connected to family, friends, and community have positive health and happiness effects across the board. This isn’t surprising, really, but it’s nice to have some thorough data to back up thousands of years of wisdom.
Let’s turn friendship on its head for a moment, and talk about its opposite. Waldinger said that the study concluded that one of the most toxic things to the men in both groups was loneliness. It wasn’t the number of friends, or whether or not they were in an intimate relationship, it was the quality of their relationships, the warmth of them, that really mattered. Plenty of married people with lots of friends nonetheless reported being lonely. 1 in 5 in the study. They also found that experiencing warm relationships actually protect our brains; having people to count on for support actually keeps our memories sharper, longer into our extended-by-happiness lives. (See, I knew there was some longevity secret in this sanctuary when I first came here!)
So, how do we make our relationships warmer? Robert Waldinger suggests replacing some screen time with more face time, getting out and doing new things with the people you like and love, and maybe reaching out to a family member or friend who you’ve had a falling out with. He says that grudges take an awful toll on our health and happiness. But I would also add, get involved in something…be it church and committees, a choir, a bird-watching group, volunteering for any number of great causes, rowing whaleboats, or taking part in a community garden. And lean in to the relationships you might cultivate there.
You never know where warm friendships might spring up, after all. Last Thursday, after work and running the dogs, I was starving and I decided to get my favorite from the Ice House in Fairhaven. They also have lots of available outlets and a great wireless connection, so I end up going there a lot and getting work done or catching up on news while I eat. I go there occasionally with my husband, I most often go alone. These devices we have provide a nice wall to hide behind when dining by oneself these days. I had finished enough pizza to satiate me, had about three sips of beer left and I had just closed my tablet. And then a woman I didn’t know came up to my table and said, “Hi, I’m Becky. I saw you sitting here by yourself and you looked lonely. Would you like to join me?”
I relish those moments when I get to be surprised by people’s courage, graciousness, and kindness. I also tend to walk through open doors when they’re in front of me, and I trust my instincts when I feel a moment of synchronicity and connection taking place. I thanked Becky, ordered another round for us both, and asked her to join me. We proceeded to find out over the course of the next hour that we had myriad things in common. We both went to St. Joseph’s school in Fairhaven and traded stories about teachers we knew there, and growing up Catholic, our moms are both nurses, her mom worked in hospice and I worked in hospice, our brothers are fishermen, we both loved Heavy Metal music from the 80’s and 90’s, and we laughed and high-fived over the fact that we’re now both NPR listeners.
It was great, I was so glad she came over, I was so glad I stayed, and leaned into the connection, and when I got home I ran upstairs like an 8-year-old and excitedly told my husband, “Honey! Honey! I just made a new friend!” My heart was warm and it felt so good. Maybe I was lonelier sitting there by myself than I thought.
Connecting with others, gathering allies and friends, cultivating warm relationships; these are the things that make the journey feel more joyous and less arduous, but they also make our lives longer, and our satisfaction with our lives deeper. And what could be more important on our journey than that?
The hero walks boldly into the unknown, understanding that there will be great challenges ahead, but he has faith that he will get by with help from his friends.

12/27/15 Crossing the Threshold

Sermon 12/27/15: Hero’s Journey Pt. 4-Crossing the Threshold by Karen Andersen

For those of you who are new here, the theme we are exploring this year is The Hero’s Journey, a story that is told in all mythologies and times and places; common archetypes that reflect our own journey and draws humanity together. Our Hero’s journey story began when the hero left the Mundane World and ventured out of his comfort zone. On his way so far he has been given supernatural aid in one form or another, been given instruction from the first of many mentors, and perhaps has gathered the first of many allies. But now it is time to cross the threshold; it’s time for the biggest part of the journey to begin. This is when the hero leaves behind everything familiar and moves into a realm filed with mystery.
A great example of this happens early in The Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo has been given the ring, instruction from Gandalf, a magical sword and chain mail, and has set off with his closest friend, Samwise Gamgee. After they have traveled a while, there comes a point, where Samwise stops, and he says, “This is it. If I take one more step, this will be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” There’s great trepidation within Sam. He hesitates, and marks the moment when he crosses the threshold into what is truly unknown. Sam understands that it’s the point of no return, and if he takes even one step further, he will be committed to the adventure, and there will be no avoiding what’s to come.
Frodo tells him, “Remember what Bilbo used to say, ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step out onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.’” And Bilbo was right…anything can happen, and there’s no way out but through.
And sometimes the gateways have a gatekeeper, a person or situation that tests your resolve to complete the journey. The story I told earlier was one of my favorite “Gatekeeper” stories. Although it is something that my tribe of Pagans tends to read at Lughnassad, in August at the first harvest, I thought it was a fitting story to tell. Lugh Lamphada, the great hero of ancient Irish mythology, even he must present himself at the gates of Tara and prove his worthiness to pass through. He is revered as the samildinach, the all-skilled, the ever-shining, and when Nuada, the injured King of the Tuatha de Dannan, hears that the ildinach is at his gates, he welcomes him in and gives over command of the host of skilled warriors and magiacians that he can no longer rule. Thus it is that Lugh’s great journey begins, leading his people through great battles and trials against their enemies, the Fomor (Fuh-vorah).
Gateways have power. When we pass through from one phase of life into another, at any point, it marks a time of great change, an unfolding into something new. We know what it means to come to a gateway, face the inevitable trials, and, finally, pass through…it happens in all sorts of ways. The most common gateways are the greatest rites of passage, which happen to all of us: birth and death. This is where we pass through from the unknown and then back into the unknown, this is where most philosophies and religions are able to really spread their wings and fly around in endless speculation. These are powerful gateways and they can invoke genuine awe in those who witness them, all religion and philosophy aside.
There are other gateways we go through of our own accord, those gateways we work and plan toward, like graduations, marriages, and starting a family. These are thresholds we cross that are of great importance, and will stick in the mind because the results are truly life-changing and we build them ourselves. One moment you’re single, then you arrive at a church, make your vows, get a ring, and BAM! You’re married! Yesterday you were a student, tomorrow, you’re officially a teacher, or a chemist, or an economist (poor souls). One minute you’ve got a giant belly and you’re screaming in pain, the next, you’re a mother, holding your new baby, and crying with joy at finally seeing that face you’ve been wondering about. The gateway is crossed in a moment, but the work to get there was probably done over years.
Then there are the all the small transitions that take place over the course of a life; thousands of tiny, great moments that change us, bit by bit. Maybe it’s realizing we have a skill, encouraging words from a teacher, a terrific new job, a special day with a parent or child, making a wonderful new friend, or finally getting to kiss that boy or girl. These might be small events, but they go far in shaping who we are, creating a patchwork of experiences.
But every year, each of us cross two thresholds that can be the impetus for change. One is our birthday. This is how we each mark the turning of our own years. Maybe we dread it, maybe we celebrate it, maybe we do a little bit of each. One way or another, if we’re lucky, another birthday comes around. The other threshold is the turning of a New Year, which is why I thought this Sunday, the last of the year, would be a natural time to talk about crossing the threshold in our hero’s journey story. Both birthdays and New Years are times when we stand at the start of something new, an opportunity to turn a page, make a resolution to improve ourselves in large or small ways.
What is it about a new year, our own or everyone’s, which makes it so ripe for change? Maybe it’s because those times of turning tend to be points when we look behind and take stock of what we’ve done over the past year, and at the same time, look ahead at what’s to come, wonder at where the journey might take us. Sort of like we’re standing on a fulcrum, caught like Samwise Gamgee, with one foot in the air, knowing that the next step we take will be the start of something new, one step in any direction will be a path that opens before us and anything can happen. I think we feel the power of that potential loud and clear when we stand at the threshold of a new year, and it makes it easier to make resolutions. It’s the challenges and trials to come that will test our resolve.
And we know that’s where the gateway leads, right? No matter which direction you put your foot down on, no matter what path you take, there will be challenges and rewards ahead. There are no avoiding the pitfalls, though, and the pitfalls are what test those resolutions we make. Old habits die especially hard and comfort zones are not easily broken out of. So, maybe the key to keeping a resolution is to find a way to renew it. Find a way to make each day the beginning of something. The old chestnut to “live every day like it was your last,” I would think, would not help us keep resolutions like eating healthier or quitting smoking. It would be more like, “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, hand me anther beer, and cut me a big slice of that cake, please!”
No, I think the power that gateways contain, the potential for growth, comes from appreciating that every day is a new beginning, a new chance to change. Perhaps if we breathe deeply, keep our feet, and get swept away with every awakening, we may just be able to keep to our resolutions. It’s so hard, isn’t it, though, to find a way to make every day count, the start of a new year that begins again every day? We are easily distracted and distracible people. But here’s a blessing: if we fail, we try again tomorrow. We are ever-renewed, and the journey begins over and over.

The Fiery Force of Hildegard von Bingen (full service) 12/6/15


The audio file for this service is too large to post here, but you may listen to it via Dropbox at:

OOS 12/6/15 Hildegard of Bingen

Prelude: O Vis Aetenitatis – Hildegard von Bingen
1 Welcome:…
We have a special service in store for you today, celebrating the real-life heroic journey of Hildegard von Bingen, a true Renaissance woman of Middle Ages. We will be having a feast of the eyes and ears this morning as we explore her life, music, lyric poetry, and artworks. I hope you enjoy it. And now, if you will please put your electronic devices into worship mode, we will begin by lighting our chalice.

2 Lighting the Chalice: Hildegard von Bingen
“I am the supreme and fiery force
who kindled every living spark
and I breathed forth no deadly thing
and I am the fiery life
of the essence of God-
I flame above the beauty of the fields,
I shine above the waters
I burn in the sun, the moon, and the stars.” Read more

The Free and The Brave 11/22/15

Sermon 11/22/15

The Free and The Brave by Karen Andersen

We’re here today to celebrate Thanksgiving, to be grateful for the blessings we have, and to enjoy the harvest together with a feast. This is good. This is as it should be. And it’s easy to be grateful in a warm safe place, surrounded by friends and family, with full bellies. As adults, we mostly think about Thanksgiving in these terms; food and friends. But let’s not forget the story of the first Thanksgiving that we tell our children, the reason kids all over this country make construction paper Pilgrim hats and headbands with feathers and act out this story year after year. It’s a heartwarming tale, our own Hero’s Journey, as we tell it…our very own American myth. Read more

Supernatural Aid: May the Force be with You! 11/8/15

Sermon 11/8/15 – Supernatural Aid: May The Force Be With You          by Karen Andersen

Welcome to part 3 of our Hero’s Journey: Supernatural Aid. This is a pretty wide open topic in a place like a Unitarian church and it certainly takes a multitude of forms in hero’s journey stories. Joseph Campbell says, “For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.” So sometimes it takes the form of a wise being with supernatural powers who guides the hero in the real world, like when Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan and gets his light saber, or Frodo gets the Ring, a sword, and the magical coat of mithril, under Gandalf’s guidance. The “amulet” and the “dragon” are amorphous and can take the shape of all kinds of things in hero stories, but the element of help from something bigger than ourselves is always present in such tales. Read more

Our Congregational Ancestors 11/1/15

OOS 11/1/15 – Honoring Our Congregational Ancestors


Chalice Lighting: “How many a knot of mystery and misunderstanding would be untied by one word spoken in simple and confiding truth of heart! How many a solitary place would be made glad if love were there, and how many a dark dwelling would be filled with light!”

– Orville Dewey (our minister 1823-1834)


Opening Words: “The dead carry our thoughts to another and nobler existence. They teach us, and especially by all the strange and seemingly untoward circumstances of their departure from this life, that they and we shall live in a future state forever.” –Orville Dewey Read more

Our Two Mary Rotches 10/25/15

Sermon 10/25/15 Our Two Mary Rotches Karen Andersen
The inspiration for this sermon grew out of a mystery. Our sexton, Tony, had to go deep into a little-used area of the church of one day, and found this sign (indicate sign) that said “Mary Russell Rotch Memorial Room.” On the back, written in a neat hand, it says, “From North Unitarian church. Removed at time of fire.” So, I saw this sign and I knew about the more locally famous Mary Rotch, whom everyone called Aunt Mary, and I knew it wasn’t her that the sign referred to. I can’t resist a mystery, especially a local history mystery, so I had to find out who this other Mary Rotch was and why she had a room named after her in the North Church. I also wanted to find out how she was related to Aunt Mary, because I knew she just had to be; powerful families like the Rotches, Rodmans, and Morgans intermarried for generations, I just had to follow the clues backward and flesh out their connection. Read more

Venturing Out: Snarks, Boojums and Fools 10/11/15

OOS 10/11/15 – Venturing Out: Snarks, Boojums and Fools
(all readings are from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark)


Lighting the Chalice: Let this flamebe the spark of adventure in our hearts and minds. May no two days ever be the same, and may we be reminded, again and again, not to take ourselves too seriously.
“He remarked to me then,” said that mildest of men,
“‘If your Snark be a Snark, that is right:
Fetch it home by all means—you may serve it with greens,
And it’s handy for striking a light. Read more