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Sermons: “Stability

"Whatsoever you wish that others do unto you, do so to them; for this is the Law of the Prophets."—Matthew 7:12

I should probably get one thing clear at the outset: I don’t claim to know much about stability, much less to possess it. In fact, when I think about what I’ve experienced in life, about my own character, it’s the instability that stands out. Yet like the preacher who admits knowing God only by the via negativa, I have to say something on the topic anyhow, since it keeps recurring in my meditations.

My temperament, for example, perhaps like yours, is subject to far greater swings than I like to admit: elation, depression, anger, joy, despair, hope. Just ask my family! They have to live with me! But I also try to take responsibility for corrective action. One recent evening, when I was feeling particularly down in the dumps, for example, I suggested going to the movies, to a comedy. We watched a movie in which an unlikely candidate for a nunnery is given her vows: Poverty. Mm-hm. Obedience. Mm-hm. Chastity. I’m out of here!

It reminded me of the only time I can recall suggesting that someone joining a church take a vow—in this case, a vow of stability. Let me explain. In many ways I thought that this person would make a wonderful new member. After all, he had just the right background. One grandparent was Roman Catholic, one Jewish, one Protestant, and one—that’s right—a Unitarian! He was thoughtful and knowledgeable about religious matters. Out of all those cross-currents, he had been raised with very little religious training as a child. But as an adult, he had almost overcompensated, studying everything religious, and even becoming a teacher of adult education. He’d been by turns a high-church Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, a low-church Christian—and now a Unitarian?

"Tell you what," I said. "If you feel at home here, welcome aboard. But if you join this church, I suggest you take what monastics call a vow of stability. Promise that you’ll stick it with us for, say, at least three years. Then consider renewing the vow."

He understood. Among other things, he had read Thomas Merton, who, when he left his dissolute life as a Columbia student to become that great paradox, a socially engaged contemplative, learned that the hardest vow for him as a Trappist monk was not that of poverty. Nor even obedience. Nor chastity. It was the vow to stay put. Not to seek transfer to another religious house or order. To stick it out with the same imperfect people, other children of God, day after day, week after week, year after year, no matter how well they get to know you, or you them, or how badly at times you treat one another. He couldn’t do it. Came close, twice, but couldn’t quite make the commitment. As my friend Ric Masten writes,

everyone it seems
is on some kind of road these days…
rolling from guru to guru we go
like gypsies
searching not for a home
but a space to park the wagons for a night...
i doubt if anyone really wants
to change his way of life
though all of us I’m sure
would like to know
how to make the scary feelings go away

In one of Isak Dinesen’s Last Tales, a character is made to point out that "there are many things in life which a human being...may attain by personal endeavor. But there exists a true humanity which will ever remain a gift, and which is to be accepted by one human being as it is given...by a fellow human being. The one who gives has [in turn] been a receiver. In this way, link by link, a chain is made from land to land and from generation to generation. Rank, wealth and nationality in this matter all go for nothing. The poor and downtrodden can hand over the gift to kings, and kings will pass it onto their favorites at Court or to an itinerant dancer in their city....Strange and wonderful it is to consider how in such community we are bound to foreigners whom we have never seen and to dead men and women whose names we have never heard and shall never hear, more closely even than if we were all holding hands."

I believe that one name for this paradoxical gift, this grace that all can receive, accept, and pass on, but none ever fully possess or embody, is stability. Thomas Merton couldn’t fully attain to it either. By the end of his life, the only way he could remain a monk was by living a solitary life on the fringes of his monastic community, and becoming a peripatetic, traveling to interfaith conferences like the one on Christian-Buddhist dialogue in Thailand where he suffered the accident that ended his life.

The paradox of stability is well captured in a Buddhist parable Merton loved to tell. Two monks are arguing about a flag. "The flag is moving," says the first monk. "No," says the second monk, "the wind is moving." Their abbot, the sixth patriarch of the Zen tradition, happens by, and says, "Not the wind, not the flag; but mind is moving." Meaning, as my down-to-earth father might put it, that it was mostly their jaws that were flapping!

My dad, you see, is the kind of silent, meditative, practical man who is neither a church-goer nor a Zen master by intention, but only sometimes by paradoxical effect. When I was a child, for example, the leading characteristic of our family life, thanks to Dad, wasn’t so much stability as mobility. We lived in nine houses in my first thirteen years. In six different towns in five different states.

He was, and is, a very competent, but completely self-educated naval architect and marine engineer, trying to get ahead and raise a family during years that saw the decline and near disappearance of American shipping and shipbuilding. One year Dad built me a sailboat. Later, he taught me canoeing. Both provided lessons in the paradoxes of stability.

The sailboat, for example, was broad and stable enough for two youngsters to handle safely. Yet you could never convince my mother of this. She was convinced that the only safe time for her sons to go sailing was when the wind wasn’t blowing at all! Dad, on the other hand, showed us that a sailboat is really most stable, especially in the waves and currents of open waters, if it’s kept moving forward, even heeled over in a good stiff breeze. "Tip it back, Daddy! Tip it back!" I can remember yelling, before I became confident at dumping some wind by easing the main or using the tiller. I can remember because just a few years ago I heard it from my wife, when Dad gave my brother and me a boat just like the one we’d learned on, to use in teaching our kids one summer vacation.

Sailing, I learned, does require something like faith, the confidence to tack against the wind, the prudence to keep a weather-eye, and the humility to say, "Lord, thy sea is so big and my boat is so small," when reefing or heading for harbor is called for. I also recall Dad showing me how the key to confidence in a canoe is the paradox of learning to swamp one, then right it again; or how a very unstable craft like a kayak can be the most easily righted; or how a compass, especially a gyroscope compass, works: it is both completely unstable with reference to the ship, and completely stable with regard to direction.

With both my parents, one sensed a simple and essential directive in life. How does the Gospel put it? "Whatsoever you wish that others do unto you, do so to them" (Matthew 7:12). Amid all life’s waves and changes, this enduring idea of love, like a carefully loaded ship, crosses the gulf between continents and cultures and generations.

It’s a mistake, you know, to think that the world is more unstable now than it ever was. Not likely. There have always been storms and turbulence. This week, for example, my wife Gwen and I were thinking back on what was going on twenty years ago, dining the tumultuous ten days in June, 1972 that included her graduation from Divinity School, my 25th birthday, our wedding, and her ordination. There was the Watergate break-in. The bombing of North Vietnam. The CIA effort to "de-stabilize" the government of Chile. Saddam Hussein in Paris buying arms. Kissinger visiting Beijing for the first time. And so on.

You know, in the Gospels, Jesus is repeatedly portrayed as crossing the Sea of Galilee by boat, often by night, often in a storm. One such voyage comes right after the Sermon on the Mount: "And behold, a great storm arose upon the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves. But he was asleep, upon the cushion in the stern. And they went and woke him, saying, "Save us, Lord; for we are perishing." And he rebuked them, saying, "Why are ye afraid, O ye of little faith?" And then he rebuked the winds and the waves, and there was a great calm" (Mt. 8:24-26).

But my favorite of these stories, I think, is the one where Jesus, in the midst of the storm, is portrayed as calmly leaving the boat and walking on the waves, saying, "Have no fear," while everyone around is are frightened to death. Then Peter asks if he can join him. "Come," says Jesus. As long as Peter, "the Rock," listens to Jesus’ voice, he walks successfully on the water. When he begins to listen to the storm winds instead, he starts to sink, and has to he rescued (Mt. 14:22-32).

Somehow here, for me, are resolved all the paradoxes of endeavoring to be steadfast and faithful, and yet always, always, dependent on grace. Let those who have ears to hear, hear; and let those who have eyes to see, see. For I will be honest with you: we shall not heap up what the world calls riches. However sheltered the port, however calm the waters, we shall not anchor there. However welcome the hospitality that welcomes, us, we are permitted to receive it but a little while. I cannot promise that without grace you or I will not sink. Someday surely, we all shall. Storms and change are all about us. What I can say is that if you be not simply a hearer of the word, but a doer also, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, then you will have an inner stability that shall be like a house built on the rock of the shore, and not the sand; like a ship that crosses safely even the sea of death, and reaches the pleasant further shore. So may it be.

Amen.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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