Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Oneness in Transformation — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on July 21, 2013


Next month, while on vacation from the church,

I will be serving the “2-weeks per year”

that I owe to the United States Army

as a Reserve military chaplain.

Luckily this year I will not be going out

to the field for those two weeks,

but rather I will be teaching classes

at hotels in Texas and Arizona

for soldiers who have just come back

from a deployment and their family members,

part of what the Army calls the Yellow Ribbon Program.

The classes are designed to give the family

some time to name how things have changed,

and to learn some tools as to how

they can grow back together again.


One of the classes that I sometimes teach

during these retreat weekends

is for the military couples themselves.

Often one member of the family has stayed home

while the other has been in Afghanistan or somewhere else.

They have each had new and different experiences.

They have each built a life separate from one another.

They have each built stories in their lives

that the other knows nothing about…

and sometimes those stories cannot easily be shared.


Often these couples want things

to go back to the way they were before the soldier left.

They even make a valiant effort to make that happen…

the soldier tries to be the person they were when they left,

and the military spouse will try to step back

from all the ways their lives have developed

while their loved one was away.

As you can guess, this rarely works.


The class that I teach talks about all of this and a lot more,

but it really has only one takeaway…

one thing that I hope that each couple

will at least think about as they leave the hotel conference room

and another set of families comes in for another class.

I tell them they have to go back

to the beginning of their relationship and start dating again.


And I don’t mean just go out on dates as a couple,

trying to rekindle romance…

I mean go back to the beginning of their relationship

and start over.

I mean they have to go back and meet one another again.

Sit down and talk about who they are, share their stories,

name what their hopes and fears for the future are.

I name to them that who they were

when the soldier left for Afghanistan no longer exists,

and they have to build their relationship anew.


Sometimes this is not true.

There are certainly some couples

who are able to pick back up where they left off.

There are also some couples who do this automatically,

who meet one another anew each day

as a basic aspect of their relationship,

and so “meeting one another again” is nothing new.

There are always a few families who have done this before,

and can tell the story about having

to meet their husband or their wife again,

and learn each other anew.


But for many of these couples,

the idea that they have to begin their relationship again,

almost from scratch is as shocking as it is frightening.

They often think it is because the soldier has changed so much,

but often I find it is the other way around.

The military spouse has learned to be independent…

to manage the household finances

and to hold the family together.

They have learned to cope with auto mechanics

and to fix the plumbing themselves.

And they are not ready to give the independence

they have learned, nor the confidence that comes with it.


Through this year or so apart,

these couples come face to face

with the one constant of human life.

Things have changed.

They have changed.

The children have changed.

Their relationship they had built together

needs to be rebuilt, different than it was before.


It was the French author, military officer, and courtier

Francois de la Rochfaucauld,

who first said what has become

an accepted maxim of human life:

“The only constant in life is change”.

He certainly saw that in his own life,

having come home wounded from the wars of the 1600’s

only to rebuild his life as a writer, nobleman,

and star of the French Salons.

He even spent a short while in the dungeon,

for crossing one Cardinal Richelieu

over an affair involving a noblewoman…


Nobleman, soldier, wounded veteran,

courtier, prisoner, courtier again,

and finally famous author and star of the discussion salon,

he lived the aphorism he has graced the world with.

The only constant in life is change.


If there is any constant in my life,

it is that almost every pastoral care

or counseling conversation I have,

be it with members and friends

of the congregations I minister with

or the soldiers and families I serve as a chaplain,

it is that the tension

between our universal human experience of change

and the near universal human desire for things to quit changing

almost always comes up in one form or another.


Why is he not the man I fell in love with anymore?

Why did she have to die?

It just does not feel like my church anymore.

I don’t think I want to have this career anymore.

My children are leaving home.

Ok, so now I’m retired… now what do I do with myself?

I feel like everyone is leaving me behind.

I was diagnosed with this illness

and I don’t know what I’m going to do.

My company is downsizing and I may lose my job.

I am just so happy,

and I don’t know why they can’t be happy for me.


In each of these profound

and emotion filled human spiritual crises

lies this tension between a human desire for stability

and a universal reality of change and transformation.

How many of you have identified

with a few of these at some point in your life?


I remember a married couple

who came to me for marriage counseling a few years ago.

They had been married for over 20 years.

The first time we met they came in as a couple,

somewhat at a loss for why they were coming to talk

to a young whippersnapper like me…

other than that I was the only person

they could both agree to see.

After all three of us had a meeting

where they were focused on their problems,

I met with each of them individually.


In those individual meetings,

both shared that first version of this spiritual crisis…

they were feeling a sense of loss

because their partner was no longer the person

they fell in love with when they married.


What struck me was that

though they felt they had nothing in common anymore,

they were each having the same experience.

They each were living with a desire for the other

to be an image from years ago,

amidst the reality that they each had profoundly changed.


I would love to tell you that this realization

brought them back together, but that would not be true.

They went to see a marriage and family therapist,

and over time realized that the changes

were so profound that they needed to end their marriage.

What did happen for them

was they ended that marriage as friends,

and remain close friends even till today.


In his book “Dark Nights of the Soul”

psychologist Thomas Moore talks about

how it is often in our more difficult times,

in those moments when our soul is wrestling

with this paradox between stability and change,

this is when we humans are open

to the most profound of transformations.

While change happens all the time,

it is in those moments where we are

in the depths of loss, or grief, or failure, or pain

that we are most able to step beyond this paradox

and let ourselves become something new.

That we are able to name and to own

our own changing nature.

And so what has actually been many small changes

all comes into our reality and awareness at once…

and we perceive it as a radical transformation.


Since I am preaching a pastoral sermon this morning,

let me share another experience.


One of the members of a previous church I have served

was a transgender woman, whom I will call Jill.

Before her transformation as a transgender person,

she had been, in her words, a “man’s man”.

She had ridden a Harley in a motorcycle club.

She had served in the military as a combat infantryman.

She smiled when we shared stories

of military barfights we had each been in.


She told me that, unlike other transgender people she had known,

she felt that who she was had changed over the years.

For many transgender persons,

they have always felt different

than the gender they had been born,

but this was not Jill’s experience.

She said that for many years she had been happy as a man,

had felt right as a man…

and then one day she recognized she wasn’t.

Being a man did not feel right anymore.


Since I met Jill, I have been amazed by her courage…

and by the willingness of the people in her life

to accept her change, even when they did not understand it.

Jill and her wife have stayed together,

and allowed their relationship to transform as well.

Society has no easy boxes to put their relationship in.

When I asked Jill’s wife Karen about the transformation,

she said “Well, I love her no matter who she is”.

Holding hands, Karen said that

she thought she had actually changed more

through all of this than Jill had.


Sadly to say, Karen had a far easier time

with Jill’s transformation than our church did.

The group meeting we had

about whether Jill could attend the women’s retreat

was a meeting I will always remember…

although in the end even our church was able to change.


As I have thought about it over the years,

I have realized that what allowed Jill and Karen to remain together

was that they were in the change together.


They both accepted that they were both changing,

and they supported each other in that transformation.

Both of them showed a remarkable ability

to let go of the human desire for stability,

and trust that they were on the journey together.


This meant that the transformation story was not Jill’s, or Karen’s,

but Jill’s and Karen’s together.

Though their changes were different,

the journey was one they shared.

They found a oneness in the change.  T

hey were writing the story of their transformation together.


Another pastoral story, this one from my own life.

When Sandy and I became a couple,

she thought she was getting

a future Agent for the Central Intelligence Agency at best,

and a history professor at worst.

The last thing in the world that she thought

I was ever going to become was a Unitarian Universalist Minister.

Heck, when we first started dating,

she had no idea what a Unitarian Universalist was!

I was between UU churches at the time.


As many of you know,

I tend to talk about just about everything happening in my life…

always have.

Something I think Sandy likes

is that I tell her just about everything

about what I am thinking and feeling.

Even when it is more than she really wants to know.


And so, Sandy walked with me

through the transformation and change

from History student and aspiring intelligence agent

to Unitarian Universalist Minster.

It was not a transition lacking in difficulty for her.

Sandy is very shy and private,

and if there is anything she would less like to be

than the traditional “minister’s wife” I have yet to find it.


What I think made the difference for us

is that she has been a part of my transformation,

a part of this journey of change from the beginning.


My story of becoming a Unitarian Universalist Minister

is inextricably linked to her story

of finding a way to accept being married to someone

who is living a public life.

Sandy lived seminary with me in such a profound way

that I think she has taken some of that journey

more personally than I have,

and it was pretty personal for me.

Sandy and I have walked the journey

of each church we have served,

and each move we’ve made,

not as my story, or her story, but as our story.

Including this sermon, which I talked about with her last night.


I think this is why,

among all couples that started seminary at the same time,

Sandy and I were in the half that were still together

when it came time to graduate.

When we graduated, it was something we did together,

even though they only had a diploma for me.

She said when we talked about this sermon

that she felt the same was true

when she earned her Bachelor’s degree.


Just as we are now both living the change of her position

with the Department of Defense ending

because of the federal budget issues.

What will walk us through it, I am convinced,

is that we are doing it together.

It is not her change… it is ours.


Francois de Rochefoucauld said that

“The only constant in life is change”,

and I am sure all the other courtiers in the salon

when he said it all smiled at his cleverness.

What he left out is that we have

the capacity to experience that change together.

Rather than grow apart,

we can always write each other into our story

by going on that journey in each other’s company.


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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