Atonement: Coming Home to Ourselves

This is the text of the sermon I offered to the good folks of the Westside UU Congregation in West Seattle, Washington on December 27th, 2020. I served WSUU as their Director of Religious Exploration from 2005 through 2012 and had a very loving leaving. The people of this congregation are so dear to my heart, and I loved co-creating the service with Jennifer Disotell and Lisa Maynard. What a joy. If you would like to see the entire service it can be viewed here on YouTube.

It has been a year. We have learned ….how to sew masks, how to 3D print masks, how to match our mask with our outfits, that a mask can keep your face warm and if we’re lucky how to keep our glasses from fogging up while we are wearing a mask.

We have learned….. to celebrate and remember differently. We’ve learned…. a lot.

If we remember back to the day we learned that Tom Hanks was Covid positive and that the NBA was suspending play I don’t think we would have believed that we would still be here in this place at the end of 2020. And yet, here we are. Zoom holiday, socially distanced gift exchange. Here we still are. 

In my family we were alerted a little earlier than the NBA/Hanks day. My middle son who grew up in this church was ….and well, is, on the front lines. He was working for the Seattle Flu Study and heard the rumblings from a virologist about how bad this virus could be well before it hit the US. 

In January of last year he bought a home with his beloved but they were renovating it so he was still living at home when the first proof of community spread showed up in their lab. The case was called Washington 2 meaning the second case of Covid 19 in Washington State. That day he literally came crawling up the stairs of our house at 11 at night and told us “we found one, we have a positive” You could just see the weight of it on his shoulders, in his face. You might have read about this in the New York times, they decided to break protocol and acted to inform the person with Covid of his status which prevented him from going into public, from spreading the virus further. 

The situation has unspooled from that moment for my son, yes, but for all of us. As Covid spread we locked down. Schools closed, jobs were gone. Much worse, many of us have lost loved ones, colleagues, friends. Our lives have been impacted in ways that I think other generations experienced during wars and famine. In fact we have just had a Christmas that for many of us was like no other.  

For me, Covid meant that my ordination ceremony scheduled for March was postponed and then moved to June and held online. During the ceremony, my mom was texting with me. She told me I looked beautiful. The next morning I got a call from my brother that they had admitted her to the hospital with a diagnosis of pneumonia. 

By the time I called the hospital to speak with her she was unresponsive. The nurse held the phone for her and I sang “Let it Be a Dance” to her, my kids called and told her that they loved her, shared memories, sang. As I waited to board a flight to Minnesota I got word that she was gone. She was never tested for Covid so we’ll never know if it’s what took her.  But because of Covid I turned around and left, I didn’t fly to be with family, there were no casseroles delivered or sitting around the kitchen table sharing stories. I just went home. 

Yes, that’s a lot. I know it is, and I honor that. But I think my story is not that much different than many of our stories. We’ve all missed graduations, holidays, important family milestones. We’ve been more isolated than most of us want to be. Our health due to Covid and our public justice and politics and beyond have been scary. Awfully scary. 

And, at the same time, while all of that incredibly difficult stuff is churning, some of our busy rush, maybe, has been scraped off. Some of the things that fill our hours during regular times are just not available during covid. I also don’t have as much cognitive capability, I call it covid brain, and I have to wonder if that has freed some spirit or emotional space to work. So, maybe like me, you’ve had a little more time and headspace for contemplation. I know for some folks, that’s brought mental and spiritual health challenges. Me, too. 

But this time I found myself a little less flattened. I was a little more resilient. I have come face-to-face with some of the same old crap that I’ve been dealing with for decades and I am telling you, I am finding myself just ready to let this stuff go. Guilt, shame, fear, Defenses,, resentments, other people’s opinions. I am just ready to let go of these. This way of battling with myself has caused me harm in my life. I have sold myself small too many times. Believed I was less than I was born to be. 

In my life before menopause I can honestly say I never really felt rage, but opening my eyes to the ways that I have mistreated myself brings on huge rage. Burning rage. My spiritual director tells me to ritualize that stuff, although she doesn’t use the word stuff. She also tells me to physically meet my rage: Throw big rocks into a river. Dig out the roots of an old tree. Move furniture. Write letters and burn them. Scream where no one will worry, and walk quickly up long, steep hills. Then she says build an altar, hang a ribbon on my prayer tree, light a candle and sing. 

As the rage lifts, I have had to forgive myself. I have to. I learned what I learned, and sometimes being small kept me safe. I learned what I learned and sometimes being quiet meant I was not a target. I learned what I learned. It served me then. And now it is time to let go of the things that no longer serve me.

This is a surprising, unexpected gift of Covid times. I have learned a lot about my own inner life. To atone for these harmful things that I have enacted upon myself and believed about myself I will wash them downstream, compost them, give them back to the earth. They can be transformed into healthy, fertile soil this way. It’s not the rage of throwing rocks into a river or screaming in the shower. This comes after the rage. For me it’s gentle. Calming. Preparing for the healing that follows the act of letting go so that everything hurt will be healed again. 

Some of us have fears around learning about our inner life and some of us for pretty darn good reasons. If this stuff scares you please know that you are not alone. So many of us are here together just trying to light a path for each other’s joy and peace. We can share the light, remember that in the dusk of the coming night there is still evidence of light. Sometimes it’s a glimmer but it’s there. It’s here. 

For me, as I have stopped fighting with myself, some of my battles with the world have gently lessened. I find the need to explain myself to people who are choosing not to understand me is fading. Reconciling my attitude toward these folks is so much easier when I just don’t care what they think of me. It’s also allowed me to see some of the institutional harm I do in my daily life and caused me to donate to Real Rent Duwamish, and support the act of interrupting injustice when it happens even in small ways, 

So yes, forgiving myself is making it easier for me to come clean in other spaces. I can understand more about how some folks and even institutions act because of deeply ingrained systems that devalue us all. There are so many ways and places to get caught, or stuck. When my kids were babies I would attribute all kinds of difficult things to teething. Not sleeping? Oh teething, crabby? Teething. Not eating? Teething. It was not always teething, but this allowed me to gently feel that something was happening and to offer grace and love to my beloved babies when I could have felt frustration and anger. 

Same thing applies here. Heteropatriarchal normativity accounts for a lot. Add capitalism and you can cover almost the whole shebang. Not everyone is able to realize the ways that they are hurt and so go on to hurt others. Moving on, or if we are able, offering forgiveness and love frees our own psyches. It frees our souls. It allows us to come to a place of depth within ourselves that feels like home. 

The most important piece of justice, of forgiveness, of enacting love in the world starts here, in our own hearts with our own being. The step of sharing that justice, forgiveness, and love with the world is a whole lot easier if we start inside. 

Imagine with me a world free of covid where people give each other grace, hold each other accountable yes but without attachment. Where we are all whole and well and forgiven. Where we begin again and again in love. 

With the words of Carrie Newcomer and Parker Palmer I offer this prayer:

Spirit of life and love, you who are known by many names, dear God, 

I pray that everything hurt across our mother earth will be healed again

May we pass into the coming year gently. 

May it light for us a path of joy and peace.

May we have little to fear and never need to walk alone

I pray that we all come to a place of knowing and love that feels like home.

Spirit let us remember; in the dusk of coming night, there is evidence of light.

Let us gently consider all the ways we heal, and how a heart can break.

Let us ponder the unknown, What is hidden and what is whole

And, may we finally learn to travel at the speed of our own souls

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