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October 21, 2012: “Accepting What Is”


“to love life, to love it even when you have no stomach for it,
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you. I will love you, again.”

Sermon “Accepting What Is”

Although known most widely in its abbreviated form, the actual “Serenity Prayer” attributed to Rheinhold Neibhur, is considerably longer. For our purposes this morning, I include part, not all, of the addition, and it, admittedly, minorly paraphrased. If you’d like to read the entire thing in Neibhur’s exact words, I would refer you to Google or the search engine of your choice. Here, in the meantime, is the Serenity Prayer with some of the additional text.

God grant me the serenity 
to accept the things I cannot change; 
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference. 
Living one day at a time; 
Enjoying one moment at a time; 
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 
Taking this broken world
as it is, not as I would have it.

I didn’t realize, last week, that that sermon and this one for today could wind up being a two part series based on the Serenity Prayer. Last week’s sermon was about finding the soul strength to show up for your life, and to engage with it fully, as opposed to succumbing to the all pervasive lethargy that wants to lure us down the path of least resistance, unconsciously causing us to “sleepwalk through life.” I encouraged us to take some action, maybe initiate a difficult conversation or get back to a 12 step meeting or put down the hand-held device or turn off the tv in order to wake up to the present moment. I encouraged us to blow on the coals of our hearts, and to do what we needed to for the embers to ignite again. So you see that sermon would have fit nicely under the heading of “changing the things we can” and today’s sermon could have come as the pre-planned counterbalance, accepting the things we cannot change.

( As an aside, I’d like to say that it would’ve been only polite for the Universe to let me know up front that this was the direction it was going to send me. I could have put the two themes in the proper order, for one thing, following the sequence of the Serenity Prayer itself, and I also could have scored some points with all you for clever, advanced planning. But be that as it may, here we are, out of order and a sermon series only by retrospect.)

But then again, if you’ll forgive the cliché, “that’s the way life is” isn’t it? So often messy and full of seemingly unrelated chunks? So often non responsive to our best efforts to change things, no matter how long we beat our heads against the wall.

And that’s precisely where are for this morning: accepting the things we cannot change; accepting what is, not necessarily as “the way it is supposed to be” in some cosmic sense, but as what is right now in any case, and stopping the subtle, maybe even unconscious resistance to it.

First let me say in the clearest possible terms what I don’t mean. I am not suggesting here that we give up resisting things like abuse or injustice or violence. I am not advocating acceptance in terms of ongoing tolerance of, or justification for, bad behavior at any level. To the contrary, real “acceptance” means calling it for what it is, ceasing the justifications or attempts to soften the reality. Acceptance means first of all admitting the full and frank extent of it, as in, “maybe I really am an alcoholic “ and then letting that really sink in. And change may in fact need to happen, and soon, but it can’t happen unless there is first of all a deep level of acceptance that this is, in fact, the reality, right now.

It’s the resistance thing that gets us into trouble–resistance to struggle, born at least partly from the fact that we are a privileged people who, at least relatively speaking, have it significantly easier than many who populate much of the rest of this globe. For example, because of antibiotics, by comparison to a hundred years ago, we don’t usually have to see much sickness or dying until late in our lives.

And, even in the midst of this economic depression, again by relative terms, we don’t have to look at much hunger or suffering.

And so we gradually come to feel sort of entitled to a convenient life, to a life where OK, maybe a few struggles, even significant ones, will happen along the way, but by and large we should get to live a full four score and then some, of basically happy, healthy years, and if we don’t , then we have somehow been singled out for unfair treatment. In my work as a hospice chaplain, I would occasionally run into people who maybe had an elderly family member who was nearing the end of life, and the family was shocked. On the one hand, I know we, in this culture, all have some level of denial about mortality, but on another level, I have to admit to having been puzzled, in the privacy of my own mind, by the fact that the coming death of a seriously old great grand parent, for example, could be surprising.

I think it happens because of lack of acceptance of life, on life’s terms, all along the way. We don’t really believe that to everything there is a season. Deep down, what we really believe is that my life, in the words of the Ecclesiastes text which the choir sang, should include a time for being born and planting and healing and building up and dancing and gathering stones and embracing, etc, and that the whole other side of that list is really just inconvenient, unfortunate stuff that only happens to the other person.

Maturity, wisdom, and paradoxically, peace come when we stop that resistance and move to acceptance of the whole deal, as it comes.

A study group of which I am a part, has been discussing a book by the famous sixties guru, now elderly, stroke survivor, Ram Dass, entitled Still Here. You may remember him from his hippie classic, Be Here Now. Still Here is a powerful and honest book about aging, but really about acceptance all along the way. In it, Ram Dass opens up honestly about his unconscious resistance to aging throughout his life, and most particularly, after the massive brain hemorrhage that severely compromised his speech and mobility. Eventually, he works his way through the struggle and resistance, and finally says:

 “Although my outward life has been radically altered, I no longer see myself as a stroke victim. I now see myself as a soul who’s watching “him” experience the aftermath of a cerebral hemorrhage. Having accepted my predicament, I’m much happier than I was before. This troubles some of the people around me. They have told me that I should fight to walk again, but I don’t know if I want to walk; I’m sitting now- that’s where I am. Why is this wrong? I’ve grown to love my wheelchair (I call it my Swan Boat) and to love being wheeled about by people who love me. They carry Chinese emperors and Indian maharajas on Palanquins; in other cultures, it’s a symbol of honor and power to be carried and wheeled. I no longer believe it’s all-important to be what our culture calls ‘optimal.'”

Ram Dass has come to a place of deep acceptance that to everything there is, in fact, a season. He didn’t get there easily or cheaply, and this is not to say it should be done quickly or without struggle in the process. He also didn’t get there alone . His loving community of family and friends were a big part of it.

And so it is with us. We who have opted not just to journey alone, but to join in community with other journeyers attempting to navigate life with grace and meaning. We commit to walking the path together, to being there for one another, through every season: through being born and dying, through laughing and weeping, through peace and conflict, through mourning and dancing. We commit to supporting one another in accepting the things we cannot change, changing the things we can, and growing in wisdom to know the difference.

And that is the community to which we welcome new members this morning.