Leaving Behind to Find What's in Front

By Rev. Terry A. Davis

This text is from a sermon given to Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church on 2011 January 09 and was kindly provided by the speaker.

On the Sunday after New Year's Day, January 2nd, Leo and I went for a walk. As some of you may know, Leo is my favorite walking companion and is also my big, black Humane Society rescue dog. Going for a walk is the highlight of his day — or, at least, so I gather based on his response when I take the leash down from the hook in our mud room. There's always lots of jumping up and down, whining and stretching, and rubbing his head on my legs and between my knees.

On this particular afternoon, the sky was a clear blue and the air was crisp and cold. As we passed down the familiar streets and turned corners in our Atlanta neighborhood, we both noticed the Christmas trees that had been dragged to the curbs. Every few houses along the way, we'd find another one, left turned on its side and ready for the recycling center. As Leo stopped to sniff among their branches, I was aware of the sad feeling I always get when I see Christmas trees tossed out this way. After occupying what I imagine to be a center stage place in the homes of people celebrating the holidays, they are stripped of their lights and glitter and casually cast out like an old shoe. It reminds me of a tale I found both endearing and heartbreaking, Hans Christian Andersen's The Fir Tree. Told from the perspective of the tree, the story is one of a little fir tree so eager for its moment of glory as the center of a family's Christmas celebration that it fails to appreciate all the good things of the present moment. It's not until Christmas is over and the fir tree is thrown out in a courtyard, chopped up and burned that it feels regret about its impatience and wishes it had more fully enjoyed all the moments in its life.

Christmas trees on the curbs of my Atlanta neighborhood are a visual reminder that the December holidays are indeed over and it is time to move on. In fact, don't we wonder a little bit about those people who leave their Christmas lights on the house and reindeer in the front yard well into January — or even all year long? What's wrong with them? Don't they know the season is over? Don't they know when to let go? Actually, if you think about it, it's probably a whole lot more practical to leave Christmas decorations up 365 days a year. It would be a lot easier, wouldn't it, then hauling out boxes of ornaments each year, untangling the dang strings of Christmas lights and risking our lives by climbing on the rooftop to hang icicles?

The possible pleasure of these rituals aside, I believe a hard-stop ending to Christmas may actually be necessary to the celebration itself. Letting Christmas go — or perhaps ending any annual holiday — gives us space to reflect, to carry on with our lives and to anticipate. We can reflect on the passing of the holiday with grief or relief (or perhaps a little of both). We can hopefully continue to carry some of good will of the season into our day to day lives as we settle into January and our regular routines. And months down the road, as December approaches once more, we can again anticipate the events and rituals of the season and make space in our lives and hearts for the holiday bustle and its beauty.

This cycle of finding, losing and finding again I describe about the holidays is one that is also found in sacred personal journeys. It is just such a cycle that Barbara Brown Taylor examines in her memoir entitled Leaving Church, the source of this morning's reading. A former Episcopal priest and now Professor of World Religions at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, Taylor recounts with humor and humility her own journey of loss and discovery as she finds a spiritual home and vocation in the Episcopal church and then, after serving the church of her dreams in the North Georgia mountains, decides to leave it. The excerpt we heard this morning about Taylor discovering and letting go of the baby bird she finds in the courtyard of All Saints Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta is a reminder of how difficult it can be to let something go even when it is clearly time to move on… and how it may take a few attempts to find the courage to leave behind the familiar to finally find what's ahead.

American Psychologist James Hillman wrote, "Loss means losing what was. We want to change, but we don't want to lose. Without time for loss, we don't have time for soul."1 How do we find the courage to surrender to loss and losing what was? How can we trust the cycle of losing and finding . . . and that our souls will gain something in the process? For some possible insights, I'd like to examine more deeply Taylor's personal journey, as well as the journeys of other faith leaders — including noted Unitarian Universalists. Ultimately, I believe these stories of loss and discovery can serve as a reminder that we can be strengthened, nurtured and transformed by our dark nights of the soul. Out of endings and out of brokenness can spring forth new discoveries and dimensions — things, perhaps, we didn't set out to discover, but found nevertheless.

In her book, Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on her story of the baby bird and sees how it clearly illustrates her inability to identify and, then, let go of what Psychologist Carl Jung would refer to as her "shadow side," which Jung defined as a person's repressed or denied self.2 In Taylor's case, her shadow side seems to be her own perfectionism and a crushing sense of responsibility. She writes, "In years to come, I often thought of this [story of the baby bird] as a parable of my life in the church. I took in as many fledglings as I could, fully intending to release them when they could fly, but the intimacy that developed between us made the releasing hard to do."3 Taylor's decision to leave her urban church for a chance to serve as rector of tiny Grace Calvary Church in Clarkesville, Georgia was her way of attempting to escape workaholism and city life and "take a second run at being both priest and whole."4 Instead, she takes her shadows with her, as well as perhaps her inability to separate herself from her role. At her little mountain church, Taylor tried to be things to all people — the inspired Sunday morning preacher, the inexhaustible pastoral caregiver, the responsible administrator, the sage interpreter of scripture and doctrine. "My dedication to being good had cost me a fortune in being whole," she reflects. "My desire to do all things well had kept me from doing the one thing within my power to do, which was to discover what it meant to be fully human."5 Taylor's decision to ultimately leave the church was in many ways a continuation of the journey she started when she decided to enter the priesthood. She initially found God and herself, then lost both, and then — after leaving church — found wholeness and the holy anew.

Losing something significant to find something even more profound is also the theme of or central story to many of the world's major religions. In the founding story of Buddhism, for example, we learn that it was Prince Siddhartha Gotama's very first encounter with people who were sick, hungry, poor and old that led to his decision to let go of his life of wealth and privilege and to live in search of a way to transcend human suffering. In the story of Judaism, we learn that Moses had to let go of his low-profile existence as a shepherd and lose his fear of public speaking in order to answer God's call to lead the enslaved Hebrews out of Egypt and into a new monotheistic faith. And, in the polytheistic religion of Hinduism, we encounter the concept of samsara, which refers to the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth and moksha, which refers to person's ability to ultimately let go of this cycle and, with it, attachments to the Self and worldly desires.6 Through these stories and practices of faith, we are repeatedly reminded that letting go is the way toward God, toward ultimate peace and connection.

While Unitarian Universalism doesn't offer us sacred stories or central doctrines that build upon a spiritual journey of letting go and finding, our liberal religion does indeed provide historical examples of how our founders gave up much in order gain the right to choose a different faith. From the early pages of our Unitarian history, for example, we learn that faith leaders experienced tragic losses — even death — in order to gain the right to assert an unorthodox understanding of God's nature and Jesus' suffering and death. We learn that 16th and 17th century European Unitarians such as Michael Servetus, Faustus Socinus and Francis David were persecuted — and, in the cases of Servetus and David — executed for their anti-trinitarian beliefs. In the U.S., we learn that 18th century New England Ministers Jonathan Mayhew, Ebenezer Gay and Charles Chauncy protested the teachings of Calvinism and doctrine of Trinitarianism and championed the role of reason in understanding the Bible, thus paving the way for the birth of American Unitarianism.

Yet, even as Unitarianism and Universalism gained respectability and adherents for its commitment to reason, tolerance and freedom, as our faith movement grew it experienced repeated cycles of loss and discovery. We lost our Christian focus as we gained tolerance for even wider interpretations of God and the sacred. Our congregations lost some of their autonomy and entrepreneurial spirit as they gained the stability and unity of a national denominational. And, we lost perhaps a significant opportunity to move toward multiculturalism during the UUA Black Empowerment controversy of the late 1960s even as we gained an end to bitter and divisive arguing.

These cycles of loss and gain continue to be with us today as we strive to be an inclusive religion. For example, while we welcome and affirm persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, only 50 percent of our 1,000 congregations and fellowships have undergone the GLBT awareness and education training necessary to be designated a "Welcoming Congregation." As we examine our desire to be multicultural, we also find ourselves also painfully examining the issue of class bias within our movement.

Up to this point, I have spoken about letting go as a personal or institutional choice — that is, a person or organization knowingly makes a decision that will result in a loss so that a way is opened up for change, discovery and growth. What I haven't yet talked about are those times when letting go seems to be an option that is thrust upon us — when it feels as though we have no choice but to let go and there are no assurances of a greater gain. At these times, letting go can feel brutally unfair and leave us feeling angry, despair and deeply shaken.

My partner Gail's mother experienced this sort of letting go as a result of her Alzheimer's disease. It was a painful period in all of our lives. When Mom was first diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she was both furious and terrified about it. Understandably, she felt as though life was handing her a very raw deal. Her husband was equally distraught, as we all were. Over next two years as Mom's mental and physical condition worsened, the letting go process demanded more and more of her and of us. Mom let go of her vocabulary, of her memory, of the ability to walk, to feed and dress herself and to tell the difference between reality and fantasy. At the beginning of her illness, she stubbornly denied anything was wrong. However, at one point along the way, Mom reached a stage in her disease that my chaplaincy supervisor described as "knowing that you don't know" — that is, Mom "got" that she was sinking further into dementia and there wasn't any way to stop it.

I remember one afternoon during this stage when just Mom and I were sitting together in my kitchen. Mom was angry because she was convinced that Dad had a girlfriend. After a few attempts to convince Mom that there was no other woman in Dad's life and that she was still his Number One, something shifted inside of her. Her anger melted into tears and, with clarity, she said, "Dad doesn't love me like he used to. I know I'm no longer his Number One." It was a heartbreaking moment as I realized from her remarks she knew that her husband had gone from being her lover to being her caretaker.

This type of letting go — uninvited and unwanted — seems to have no measure of redemption. While we might be able to argue that loss always accompanies gain, perhaps we might also acknowledge that gain does not always accompany loss. As we traveled with Mom and each other on this letting go journey toward her eventual death a year ago, there was intense emotional suffering. Yet, during that time there were also deeply moving moments of connection. Looking back on that experience, I would never in a million years argue that the gains outweighed the losses. However, I do — as I know my partner Gail does — hold on to the memories of those brief moments of connection. We still find ourselves sorting through the pieces, and we're still making meaning of the larger pattern of mystery to which they belong.

As we move forward into this New Year, let us be mindful of the cycle of losing and finding that we will encounter. Where we can choose to let go, let us do so with the hope that we will be making a way to gain rich experiences. Where the process of letting go may be thrust upon us, may we find the courage to travel the journey and the faith that moments of light and peace can still be with us.


1 http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/jameshillm280960.html, accessed January 5, 2011.

2 http://www.reconnections.net/shadow2.htm, accessed January 7, 2011.

3 Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 50.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid, 127.

6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinduism, accessed January 6, 2011.