When I was a young girl, my father had a Wheel Horse Lawn and Garden Tractor. The company manufactured these for forty years beginning in 1946. There wasn’t much that thing couldn’t do! It had a mower deck, a snowplow, a hitch so you could pull all manner of tools behind it. My brother and I- when we came of a certain age- were allowed to drive the tractor, a much-coveted rite of passage. In actuality that was a ploy to get us to cut the grass! I remember shifting it just right in an effort to pop the front tires up off the ground, but that’s a story for another time, I think. We had a good-sized vegetable garden that seemed to expand every year. The Wheel Horse was invaluable with its tiller blade and harrowing attachments; perfect for opening up new space to the garden, but also for the turning under of the season’s crops now done with their above ground cycle. I often think of gardening as a spring and summer kind of activity, harvesting for the fall and a fallow time in between. But there is more going on in the autumn of the year than just bringing in the yield.
Cultivation – that practice of preparing and using land for crops, of breaking up the soil in preparation for sowing and planting- happens in the spring, of course, and in the growing season when we would aerate the soil – that’s a form of it, too - but it happens in the fall, also. There are nutrients in those spent plantings still to be utilized, not to mention the compost that has been percolating all year long, waiting to be spread and added to the earth. Each season bears its own means of cultivation. As I began to think about cultivating in preparation for today – was I cultivating in some parallel way? – I was called to think on the ways that the metaphor has meaning in this particular season of the year; this particular autumn set apart from those that linger in our memories, whether they be childhood recollections or those related to our time together here on the hill in Chatham.
Cultivation takes work, even if you have a tractor to do the heavy lifting. And so do relationships! Together they make up our Soul Matters theme for the month. They begin here with a choice, as Emma Merchant so aptly stated. We may be a little like family, but we are made so by the choice to enter into this space; to cast our lot with one another on this journey toward beloved community. We are free to come and go as we choose, but we make a commitment to each other and this place when we sign the membership book. Our freedom isn’t something to take lightly. It comes with responsibility. She talks about the idea of unconditional love – the kind without judgement – the ‘I will love you no matter what’ kind of love. Talk about work!
Poet and philosopher Mark Nepo writes that, “Unconditional love is not so much about how we receive and endure each other, as it is about the deep vow to never, under any condition, stop bringing the flawed truth of who we are to each other.” He suggests that this is not about a passive stance in the face of hurt, but instead a way forward from it. It makes space for us to say so when we are hurt, to acknowledge our flawed nature as human beings and for our partner in relationship to have a chance to grow more fully into who they are intending to be.
Ours has been a faith tradition that touts tolerance and I have often taken issue with this because tolerance means we put up with things and people. On the one hand we want to be open to ideas and ways of being that are different from our own, but sometimes we extend the concept of tolerance to letting things go when they really should be spoken to, creating an unhealthy dynamic that lives in the walls and disrupts more than it aids in moving forward. Acceptance of difference and allowing harm are not the same thing. Love is as much about communication as it is about acceptance.
Unitarian Universalist minister, Kaaren Solveig Anderson, talks about transcendence with life, with the holy, coming through human relationships. She knows that humans will let her down and hurt her, disappoint, betray, and otherwise fail her. But they also repeatedly save us from a selfishness that can destroy our well-being. And they have loved her so fiercely as to bring her back from despair, loneliness, and isolation, cajoling her into a better self. Hers is a realistic humanism that sees all sides of our beings and accepts that they exist in each of us. Poet David Whyte, writing about disappointment offers that it is a catalyst, a turning point of sorts in a journey. When we are disappointed with ourselves or others it is a chance to shift direction, make a new way. We will always have disappointments in our relationships, but what we do with those is the work of cultivating. Salvage what is of use, till it under and let it nourish what comes next.
We say each week together that, “Love is the Spirit of this Meeting House.” What do we mean by that? It’s the Spirit, we say, and so I picture it in the ether, weaving its way in and among us, connecting us as if with a soft chiffon ribbon. It is in our words and as we speak, I see it flowing from our hearts through our lips and settling in our midst. Sounds delightful, doesn’t it, effortless and warm. I can dream, right? Sometimes it is this way, to be sure, but more often than not it takes work! If Love is going to be the Spirit of this Meeting House it needs to be cultivated. It asks us to do the harder thing in those moments when our ever-present human nature rears its not so perfect head.
We will fail one another. Relationships are messy. But this love is about the long haul. It is about the things we value as Unitarian Universalists and the creation of a place where we can practice those things, a place of community where we are safe to learn and grow in our own time alongside others in the same process. Writer and activist, Adrienne Maree Brown, talks about the idea of love as a central practice and the impact that love would have if increasing it was our primary goal as opposed to domination or control. In so doing, she suggests that there is no empty land, but instead “complex, ancient, fertile ground full of potential.” We would see the value of our relationships as key to the beloved community we so desire, would come to understand the cultivation of those relationships as a necessary piece of our striving. What our faith asks of us, imagines for us according to the Rev. Gretchen Haley, is that somehow, right at that moment when our hearts break, we will find our way to see through that heartbreak. We will stay put – not close off, not run away, not hurt back – but keep on being in relationship, doing what we can to repair the world and each other.
I like our opening hymn this morning because it asks us, invites us into the work of relationship. It asks us to be here for one another when we are frightened or angry or troubled; in those moments where we feel like we’ve lost our grasp on life and its course. It wants to know if we will still listen and reassure and embrace each other when we are less than loveable. And it suggests that through compassion and acceptance and commitment we’ll get better at caring; giving; loving. Especially now, as we come through what has been a truly traumatic time in our lives, can we acknowledge that we have all experienced some level of isolation or loneliness; some amount of fear or uncertainty. Can we say how much we really need one another now more than ever?
I wonder if any of you are willing today to share what you need from this faith; from this very special community? I’ll pause here for a minute and give you a chance to share. Just raise your hand or call out whatever it might be.
*Some of the things expressed included a sense of family, support, kindred souls and hope, a place to share and act on our Principles; a touchstone, a place to be challenged and loved, a place of balance different from more traditional faiths and a place of comfort or home.*
As is evidenced by my dad’s Wheel Horse, sometimes tools are necessary for the cultivating to go smoothly. I have spoken in recent months about the concept of a covenant – a relational covenant, that might get us from “Love is the Spirit” in words to a deeper understanding of “Love is the Spirit” in our relationships here. We are, after all, a covenantal faith, not a creedal one. We covenant to this Love, but without a means to the end, it can be complicated to get to. We know how to show our love for other human beings; the little things we do for a spouse or a child or a parent that say, “I love you.” And we practice some of those here with our siblings in faith, too. But what if we were to consider these things we know we need from this place, from each other, spoken or held close for now, to dwell together in peace; consider how we might achieve such things; what behaviors would be necessary for it to be realized in our midst. What if we were to covenant to cultivate our relationships using these as guidelines; to say to one another when we miss the mark, ‘that hurt’ or, ‘I felt anxious’; and to build in some ways to remedy those situations with Love as the guiding Spirit?
It’s not a panacea, but it is a starting place. It is a mechanism, a tool, like the Wheel Horse with all its attachments, that makes the cultivation less individually arduous because we do it collectively, hold one another accountable with Love. This is an invitation into a time of discernment for us here at the UU Meeting House of Chatham; a time to explore what we need to add into the soil of our existence so that it turns to a rich humus, full of nutrients and possessed of its centuries long shelf life; a time to think about sustainability not just of our physical building, but of the Love that is the Spirit of this Meeting House.
May it be so.
Blessed be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, October 24, 2021