Finding Our Ground

a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely September 1, 2019  Unitarian Church of Edmonton

This week our home has been, in the word of one of our teen daughters, “angsty”.

The summer holidays are coming to a close.  The routines of the school years past and just ahead are both missed and dreaded.   One daughter just got back after a three week journey and is fighting jet lag.  Another is boooored by summer activities that have long since gone stale.  She can’t wait to get back to friends and school.  Another is nervous because she is being pushed from her comfort zone and is starting in a new high school.

And it’s not just them.  My big Cancer bike ride is behind me.  That’s been a powerful distraction all summer occupying both my time and my mental energy.  With that done I am gripped by the full blown awareness of my final five months serving this community begins for real today.  An uncertain future is just a short time away and getting closer.

Like my daughter said…it’s an angsty time.

September, especially this weekend in September, is a time of transition for many of us.  Schools start, traffic patterns change, programs begin in community centres, choirs start rehearsing. committees meet, the feel of church shifts.  In Judaism, the new year celebrations are weeks away.  I suspect for many in our culture this feels like the new year, even if we have been working or studying all along.  Though leaves still adorn the trees, we are shifting into winter mode.

But – big but, all of that is not quite here yet.  It all begins on Tuesday.  This weekend is the last gasp of the summer we never really had, or the last bit of waiting time before it all begins again.  Angsty for many.

Not everyone responds to September this way, but most everyone goes through some moment when they are approaching a transition and the world around them feels a bit wobbly.  Maybe it’s a long awaited medical procedure, or just waiting for lab test results.  Perhaps it’s a move or a job change that’s unsettling. It could be the beginning or ending of relationships.  Transitions happen, and they can be unsettling. 

If nothing else we just have to endure it, get through it.

But maybe there is something we can do to help settle us down, help us manage the transition more easily.

I know I have coached my daughters on this when they are concerned about a project or a test.

A very long time ago I was a stage manager in a large college musical theatre production.  In the day or so before the curtain went up, the director and the technical director fell into a nasty spat and refused to speak to one another.  This was just before dress rehearsal began, angsty at any time.  I was stuck with literally running up the theatre aisles, up two floors to the lighting booth, and then all the way back down again in order to carry communications back and forth.  It was my first leadership gig in theatre, and I felt pulled in a dozen different directions.  On my third or fourth go round of this nonsense, a wise older theatre publicist, critic, director and actor who happened to be observing this farce pulled me aside as I ran by.

“Brian, sit a moment”, he said with deliberate calm.  “This show opens in 24 hours, correct?”  “Yes, Michael.”  “I have a question…in 27 hours, will any of this silliness matter?”

It was a moment of blinding insight, a realization that the things that stress us have end points, often predictable end points.

In so many hours, the test will be over and done and life will return to normal.  In X days the medical results will be in.  By next Monday, someone will have moved into a new home.  Sure they might be other stresses arising from these things, but that one piece, that certain thing that is tearing you apart right this very second, well it will be done. It’s likely that nothing you did in response to the stress will have had an effect, certainly jot a positive effect.  So what’s the point of letting anxiety take control?

Breathe.

Life might be different, but it will go on and that BIG THING will fade into memory.

I found Michael’s wisdom to be incredibly grounding, very stress relieving.  I stopped worrying about the theatre spat. I stopped running up the aisle and the stairs.  I stopped buying into their anxiety.  I got them to agree to just get on with it.  These two guys would work it out or they wouldn’t.  That would be on them not me, and regardless, it would be over soon.

So a first suggestion for finding your ground is to take on only what’s yours.

Understand that it will end.

So, breathe…now.

Few failures are the end of the world…and it might not be a failure after all.

In fact, our show went up on time and won awards at a provincial drama festival.

It seems to me that much of life is impacted by the need to live up to expectations, whether it be those placed on us by others, or by ourselves.  We want to do well, feel a sense of accomplishment, be liked, not let people down.  All of those are worthy goals.  Striving to be good at something is part of being human.  But like almost everything in life, there comes a point where it can become too much of a good thing.  The price of achievement can get too high.  The stress can throw us off balance.  We can end up trying too hard at the expense of other things life has to offer.

Another personal aphorism that has served me well:  “B+ is a pretty good grade.  The A+ sacrifice might not be worth it.” Life is about more than top marks. 

Part of the problem is that achievement can be very seductive.  We get approval – or maybe just a reduction of threat.  We feel good about our efforts.  People like us more because we get stuff done, so we try to do more and more.  We forget why we are doing it, and perhaps grow resentful, and then burn out comes and knocks us around.  We can lose what we think we have gained.

When events are pulling you six ways to Sunday, when a VERY BIG THING looms large over your life, it’s a good time to go back to the things that ground you.

And the things that ground you, whether it be a place or a person or an activity, they are where you go when you need to feel safe, when you need to regain balance, catch your breath, where you need to be to feel the ground under you feet.

I am reminded of two stories from the Gospels.  As Jesus pondered starting his public ministry with all pf its looming uncertainties, he went into the desert to fast for 40 days and nights.  He went through some interesting challenges and tests.  Those tests strengthened his resolve and helped solidify his understanding of his purpose.  He went to the place that felt right and away from friends and family to sort things out.  Similarly, on the night he was arrested by the Romans a night of great fear for the tortures that lay ahead, he left his companions – okay, some of them fell asleep on him – and went into a garden to pray.  It seems that being outside in nature with his own thoughts, praying or meditating was grounding for him.  It let him face what was to come with a greater degree of calm and acceptance.

We all need to find that grounding place before we get swept up in the whirlwind.

When I have to work something out, I like to ride my bike for some distance.  I find the rhythmic pattern of pedalling quiets the murmurs.  My mind can drift and look at the problems in different ways.  I don’t actively THINK, I just let thoughts and ideas come. Usually, when I get home, my stress has dropped, my perspective has returned, and once in awhile even a course of action has come to me.

There are all kinds of places, physical and mental where we can go to find that calm eye of the storm.  The number of places is as varied as the number of people who seek them.  You have to find yours.  You probably already know where your ground is, whether you call it that or not.  You know where your calm place is, the place where you can lay it all aside for a time.

My colleague  Carol Allman-Morton writes:

Many of us carry a burden of worry.

Anxiety over the state of the world

Worries about money

About our environment,

Our families

About peace and justice.

May we trust that nothing will get worse for us putting that burden down for a moment.

May we let go of what weighs us down.

May we find that we can set down worry for longer and longer periods of time.

In our experience of letting go, may we be open to the possibility that we need not pick our worries back up.

May we find passion and strength to work for change where we have the power to do so, and to let go where we do not…

I suppose that my favourite line of Carol’s meditation is “May we trust that nothing will get worse for us putting that burden down for a moment.”

You are each important.  You each carry expectations, some created by you, some imposed by others.  Sometimes these expectations become burdensome.  To use an old phrase, you may walk around as if you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.  It’s a reference to Atlas.  What we often forget was that Atlas’ task of holding up the world was a punishment for leading the Titan revolt against the gods.  It wasn’t his choice.  It wasn’t his ambition.  He could not lay down his burden.

It might be that you can, if only for a time.  So let your muscles relax, shake things out a bit, stretch a bit, find your level ground.  The burden of hopes, expectations and duty will still be there when you choose to pick them up again.

But it will be your choice, and you will have the benefit of finding your ground first.

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