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

The World Breaks Us All — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached October 6th, 2013

This is the second time our congregation has reached the theme of Brokenness, in our cycle of monthly themes for the worship life of our congregation.  Actually, as of last month, we have completed our cycle of worship themes, and have begun now to re-explore the topics that we began with when the congregation first adopted monthly themes three years ago.  So, there is a little story about my coming to this congregation that you likely do not know.

You see, one of my published writings is on the theme of brokenness… a pastoral reflection in the book “Bless All Who Serve”, the Unitarian Universalist meditation manual for military service members, veterans, and their families.  It begins with a quote from a novel by Earnest Hemmingway…   “The World Breaks Us All… and afterwards some become strong at the broken places”.

I then go on to reflect about how it is in telling our stories about our brokenness in community that we find that strength and healing… that much of our wisdom comes from responsibly engaging all of the places of hurt and pain, failure and loss, disconnection and brokenness.

Well, Rev. Jan read that written reflection in worship three years ago… and so when, just a few days later, I applied to be considered for the position of Assistant Minister here at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura, Rev. Jan knew she had seen that name before somewhere…

You see… we were brought together by our brokenness…

I believe that more often than not we are brought together by our brokenness.  I believe that wisdom, true wisdom, almost always comes out of our brokenness.  I believe that our strength can come from our brokenness… if only we will let it.

For the last two days, it has been my honor to facilitate a retreat for our church’s Buddhist Meditation group, the Friendship Sangha of the Heart.  The retreat was to engage a particular set of teachings by Shambhala Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, called “Practicing Peace in Times of War”.  Some of you may know that I led an Adult Spiritual Growth class last year based on the same material… and I believe it is a profound enough teaching I will likely lead it again, many times in my ministerial career, in probably every church I will serve.  I am always moved by Pema’s teachings… but these particular teachings are about the inner practices of being a peacemaker in our world, in our communities, in our families, and in our own hearts and minds.

I think I am called to facilitate and share the teachings so often in part because I need to be reminded of them as much as anyone…  I find it to not just be a practical way to work with our emotions amidst conflict, but also a critical analysis on the cycles of violence and aggression upon which our world seems based, and our own responsibility for creating and perpetuating those cycles.  It is the idea that the world’s brokenness is rooted in our own brokenness.

In other words… it is not that the “World Breaks Us All” as Earnest Hemmingway put it, but rather that the unprocessed, unrefined, unwise brokenness in each and every one of our hearts becomes the building blocks for the brokenness we see in our families, in our communities, in our nation, and in our world.

And we are right now seeing some of the consequences of what it means to leave that brokenness in the world in a state of non-wisdom, aren’t we?  (Picture of Congress).

We laugh… but it is a bit of a painful laugh, isn’t it?  Because even the best of us carries within us a shadow, an echo of the same internal brokenness that, when combined together and not transmuted into wisdom can break even the government of the world’s greatest democracy.  We can discuss all the partisan tactics, all the personalities, all the bad decisions and gerrymandered districts that have led to the current federal government shutdown and a congress with having a lower approval rating among the American people than North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un.  But it is uncomfortable, because as broken as our government currently is, we know that the littleness… the unwillingness to compromise, the unchallengable beliefs, the feelings of superiority and fear that we see being played out in this drama before us… we know that we all carry at least echos of those same broken places in our own hearts and lives.

In the Practicing Peace in Time of War teachings, Pema Chodron tells a story of a time where she was teaching before a large audience… when she stated that she had never met anyone who did not have many prejudices and biases in their heart.  One woman in the crowd took objection to this statement, and came forward to a microphone and said that she, this woman from the audience, had no biases or prejudices in her heart.  She had done a lot of work to rid herself of them all.  The woman from the audience then listed all the groups she was a part of… groups that were dedicated to helping those who were disadvantaged, impoverished, or marginalized… groups that Pema herself said she would have been proud to join.

Pema then asked the woman from the audience a question… “So, what do you think about Rich people?  What are your feelings about people who have more money than they need?”

And the woman from the audience bowed and admitted that she was wrong… she did have some very strong prejudices after all.

The brokenness in our hearts, minds, and lives does indeed come in many forms… from the different biases and prejudices that we all carry, to the wounds and pains from traumatic events, to the harm we cause ourselves through self-doubt and shame… we all carry our brokenness with us everywhere we go.  One of the myths I run into in my pastoral ministry over and over is how someone believes that everyone else is so together, so perfect, so well processed… while we in our own heart of hearts feel so broken.

I remember a day a few years ago in ministry, while serving a congregation before this one, where two members of the congregation made pastoral appointments with me in the same week, about two days apart.

When I spoke with the first person to make an appointment, he told me how much he looked up to another man in the congregation… the one I would have an appointment with a few days later.  He looked up to this other congregant because of how “together” he seemed… how he seemed to have risen above all of the challenges, and how inspiring that was to the younger man who was facing some significant personal difficulty at the moment…

When, a few days later, I met with the second gentleman, he told me how inspired he was by the courage of the younger man whom I had met with a few days before, to be facing such challenges with wisdom and maturity… and how it made him feel inadequate for all the times in his life that he had been afraid to face his own brokenness.

I’ve come to accept that such moments, such paradoxes are just a fact of life for being a minister, and I am powerless to prevent them.

It may be the thing I say most generic imitrex buy online often in my pastoral ministry… be it here with congregants of this church, or in the community, or in my work as a military chaplain.  Dear hearts… we all carry brokenness with us.  We all carry hurt and pain and loss and shame and grief and so, so much more.

Look around the room…  I know that this will be uncomfortable, but do it anyway.  Think of all the places in your own heart and soul where you have the brokenness of bias, of shame, of loss, of pain… all the places where you go when you are feeling down and depressed… think of those things, and look around the room.  Keep looking around the room.  If there is any universal human experience, if there is anything that we all share, it is that we all carry such brokenness within us.  None of us are “less than” because we have such places and spaces.  For some of us those places and spaces are closer to the surface, for others of us they are buried more deeply.  But it is always there.  Always.

Just look at each other for a moment.  What does it mean to you to know that in each person sitting around you are places that connect to the spaces in you where you feel the most broken?  What does it mean?

It is okay to move your eyes back into our little shells again… and thank you for risking that much with me this morning.  I know that doing so was a brave act for many of you… I know that often those who seem the most together on the surface carry some of the most jagged brokenness within.

I want to invite Chuck Samonsky to come share something with us that he shared with Rev. Jan and I a few weeks ago… Chuck?

For 31 years I was a criminal defense attorney, and it was routine for me to prepare my client for sentencing after a conviction.  Part of that process was to request letters of reference on their behalf from friends, relatives, teachers, clergy, community members and interested others to vouch for their character or to write on their behalf.  I always cautioned that they not suggest any instructions or format to these letters, and to let the writer choose all of that in their own words.

Not uncommonly, I was faced with resistance from a reluctant client: 

“Oh, no, I would be too embarrassed, no one knows anything about this!” 

“What are they going to say when they learn I am a felon?”

“I don’t feel comfortable asking for help from these people!” 

“I don’t know anybody that the judge wants to hear from!”

But, I would insist, and made them start at that moment in my office by listing the first 3 people who might be good candidates for such letters.  They were to keep that list with them 24 hours a day, even at their bedside, and if they woke at 2 am with a name, they were to write it down. 

The process was transforming for a good number of my clients.  The creativity of letters submitted, even for clients whose crimes were very serious, never ceased to amaze even me.  The most effective seemed to be hand written, even with grammatical errors.  But the effect they had on the feelings of self-worth of the client was often amazing.  The effect on the sentencing judge was often palpable. 

The client would express surprise and gratitude.  I can remember several comments:

“I thought they would hate me.”

“Wow!  I had no idea she knew those things about me.  That really made me feel good!”

“People respect me!”

“The letters made me cry.”

“I can’t believe that the judge said that she reduced my sentence after reading those letters!”

“I have already written thank-you notes to all of them.”

“This is not the end of the world for me, is it?”  



One of the things that Pema Chodron teaches is that we need to begin our work in life from a place of unconditional friendship towards ourselves.  In the practice she teaches as a part of Practicing Peace in Times of War, peacemakers are taught how to go deeply into our own emotional life, separate from the storylines we tell ourselves about our emotions, and really experience and explore the emotions themselves.  What does terrified taste like?  What does anger feel like in your toes?  If jealousy had a color, what color would it be?  She says, and I believe, that true wisdom, what she calls “Natural Intelligence” can only be found by going deeply into our emotions themselves…  In my pastoral ministry I say it a little differently… I say that it is by listening to our emotions that we find out what we truly value… what is really most important to us.

And yet many of us are deeply afraid of exploring our emotional landscapes, because we believe we will not like what we will find there.  Sometimes we are afraid of such an exploration of our emotional selves because it might mean connecting to past griefs, pains, and emotional traumas … but more often than not in my experience we are afraid that, if we look closely at our emotional landscapes and lives we will not like what it may mean for our self-image…  What if I look into my emotional landscape and find that I have a lot of jealousy, or hatred, or aggression?  What will it mean if I discover that I really have more prejudice than I thought I had?

Pema teaches that compassion for others must begin from a place of compassion for ourselves.

I remember a conversation in the library at the Unitarian Universalist seminary that I attended with a fellow student who had an epiphany… that the first principal of Unitarian Universalism, that every person has inherent worth and dignity… that this principal has to apply first to yourself before you can apply it to anyone else.

You, each of you… you have inherent worth and dignity.  I have inherent worth and dignity.  Everyone outside of these walls has inherent worth and dignity, including all of the members of congress.  The miracle of Universalist theology is that no matter what is inside you, no matter what you may have done, no matter how jagged your brokenness may be, or how hidden you may keep it… you are worthy.  You are worthy of looking within and encountering all of who you are, even the places you may not like so much, with unconditional friendship for yourself.  You are worthy.

And within all those places and spaces… all those jagged edges and worn down brokenness lies all the wisdom of the world.  Lies a Natural Intelligence, a Natural Openness, a Natural Dignity, and a Natural Warmth that you do not have to search for on the highest mountaintops or the deepest caves…  all the wisdom of the world rests within each of us already… we have only to befriend ourselves enough to uncover everything that keeps us from allowing it to shine.

Or at least that is what Pema Chodron teaches us… and I, for one, believe she is right.

So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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