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Presented December 20, 2009, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning
Listen to a recording of "The Light In The Dark"
28:45 minutes - 11.5 MB - The Light In The Dark .mp3 file.
"Simplicity comes from letting go of what you want."
Today is December 20th and that means not only that Sebastian is now one year old, but also and more importantly that Christmas is only five days away. Perhaps we feel already immersed in the mythology of the Christmas story thanks to the Christmas carols always playing on the radio and in the stores, but we all know we soon will be more immersed in the mythology of Christianity as we move into Christmas Eve and Christmas day and hear again about the star and the shepherd and the baby born of Mary. Of course this Christian mythology is not the only mythology on offer and being celebrated now. There is also the mythology of Hannukah, as our friends the Kirschs shared with us a few weeks ago, with its miracle of the one day's supply of oil in the Temple in Jerusalem that miraculously lasted for 8 days.
The Christian and the Jewish mythologies being celebrated at this time of the year are both beautiful and meaningful, but what if you are a skeptic and your mythological engines simply don't fire anymore? What if these are really just beautiful stories to you that you have heard a hundred times and still do not believe? That description may well fit many of us in this church and many Unitarians everywhere and many other people as well. What does this time of year have to offer all those who remain untouched and uninspired by the religious mythology of this season?
To this question there is, of course, an obvious answer. Even if you don't embrace the religious mythology of the season it's still a season of celebration with all the decorations, the shopping, the wrapping, the gift giving. Even if you don't do the Jesus baby in a manger thing there is still Santa and the reindeer and the stuff, the clothes and the toys, the wuzzers boozles as the Grinch says. It's still the season we celebrate having stuff and getting a lot of new stuff. The other day Dana came back from seeing her doctor and she said "The doctor tells me there are only six shopping days until Christmas." I explained to Dana that the doctor said that to her because that is how our American culture measures time at this time of the year.
It probably would not surprise any of us to hear that now there are only five shopping days until Christmas. We know that is the purely artificial and cultural way we Americans thinks about time right now. This certainly shows how wrapped up our American culture is in the Christmas shopping and gift giving side of this season now; we are wrapped up in this whether we believe and celebrate the Christian mythology or not. Whether you believe in the miraculous birth at Bethlehem or not, there are still only 5 shopping days left until Christmas.
But what if you don't want to measure and to live time right now in this purely cultural and artificial way, and you don't want to be immersed in the commercial craziness of the American holiday season and you don't believe in and want the mythology? Well, on our banner of the world's religious and philosophical traditions there is one symbol of an ancient wisdom that is mythology-free, that certainly is counter to this season's crazy preoccupation with shopping and with stuff, and that appeals to us to experience time not in an artificial and purely cultural way but to live time in a natural way, and that of course is the one that represents the ancient Chinese wisdom of Daoism.
Daoism is referred to as "the natural way." It always calls us back to nature, to time in its natural unfolding, to the unraveling universe beyond simply what humans do, beyond what humans are preoccupied with. So beyond all the shopping and the preoccupation with stuff and with mythology, Daoism returns us always to thinking about nature. Daoism could not be less interested in how many days are left in the Christmas shopping season; it is only concerned with natural seasons.
Thinking about nature and the season of nature we are in right now might be the last thing we want to do because it is winter. Who wants to think about cold, freezing temperatures, ice and snow? We are all very aware of the natural season of winter because we battle against it. We insulate our houses, wrap the windows, chop the firewood, and we wrap ourselves in sweaters and thick coats and scarves and gloves-all to fight the good fight against this natural foe we will be battling into March, winter.
Winter can be a very difficult time for us. Sometimes-like when we are scraping the ice of the car windshield so we can see the snowstorm we are driving through-it seems all we are doing is battling against nature. And this time of year right now, in December, we now all those battles are ahead of us, January, February, even some of March, long, dark, cold months of battling against nature.
But Daoism, the natural way, appeals to us to have a deeper understanding of what is happening now, as the world unfolds in its natural time and seasons. Tomorrow is December 21, the shortest day of the year, and after that each day will be a little longer. Sunset tomorrow happens here in Quincy at 4:43. A week later the day is 5 minutes longer. A month from now the sun will set at 5:08, and 2 months from now, when we are in late February and likely will still be battling winter, the day will be nearly an hour and half longer and the sun will set at 5:44. Just when we think it is just us against nature battling it out to survive the winter, nature herself gives us just what we need, a little more light every day in the dark of winter. This is the way of the Dao. The light in the dark grows quietly and slowly and almost imperceptibly. The light that grows naturally in the dark will certainly be imperceptible to us if we mistakenly believe that all there is in the world is us and our own human efforts and striving. Daoism tries to take us beyond our own efforts and striving back to Dao, back to the reality of the universe as it naturally unfolds, as it naturally gives us just when we most need it just what we would want to create for ourselves, a bit more light in the dark.
Here is a passage from the Tao te Ching, the earliest classic text of Daoism:
The wise person. . . watches the seasons rise and fall
He knows how things grow. He knows they are fed by their roots
And they return to their roots to grow and flower and flow.
Every thing must have its roots,
And the tendrils work quietly underground.
This quiet feeding is the Way of Nature.
If you understand ch'ang-this principle of nurturing,
You can understand everything.
Not understanding it will lead you to disaster.
Daoism teaches that the light that grows in the dark, what we most need when we most need it, when we are battling against the winter, is another example of the nurturing nature of Dao. Daoism teaches that wise humans flow naturally just as Dao flows; they live in harmony with the nurturing nature of Dao. Dao is nurturing and humans should just allow themselves to be naturally nurturing. The Tao brings light into dark and humans too should simply and naturally bring light into dark.
I had already decided to talk about Daoism and the light in the dark when I sat out there a few weeks ago when our friends Diane and Myron Kirsch were here to speak to us. There was so much going on at that time, so much light. Not only were Diane and Myron teaching us about Hannukkah but anyone could also see the nurturing love between Myron and Diane as they did the talk together. And they were testifying to the natural light of friendship and compassion as they experienced it here in this own in their lives. They explained that even though they were Jewish and were different from most people, people in Quincy were still very warm to them and open and interested and that they and their kids had just been able to live naturally and openly with Jewish friends and non-Jewish friends. And why wouldn't such wonderful people as the Kirsch's be able to simply live that way with other humans? What could be more natural? There was so much light happening as Diane and Myron spoke together but as I sat there I thought about the darkness as well. Diane and Myron have been able to have a peaceful and natural life here but the families their parents left behind in Germany, in Latvia and in Lithuania, those Ashkenazic Jewish communities were almost entirely swallowed up in the great darkness of the Holocaust.
Perhaps we can never get very far away from the reality that humans often live very contrary to and against the nurturing nature of Dao and destroy the light that naturally comes into the world and grows.
There was so much happening as the Kirschs spoke that morning. One this side were Diane and Myron and on the other side was the chalice. The chalice represents, of course, the light of all times that shines through all the religious traditions and all cultures, but it also has a more specific reference. The chalice came to be used as a symbol for Unitarians when Unitarians and Quakers were working to help Jews and other victims of Nazis escape the darkness of Nazi oppression. So the Chalice represents not only the light of reason and truth, but it also expresses an attempt by Unitarians and others to live naturally, to live according to the nurturing nature of Dao, and to simply help other humans when they desperately needed help. The chalice represents the human attempt to live in harmony with nature and do what Daoism teaches nature does, nurture, care for, and bring light into the darkness.
These days before Christmas and after Christmas, these cold days of winter when we begin to fight the good fight against the snow, the ice, and prepare ourselves for the long cold months ahead, these are also the days when the light just naturally starts to increase. These are good days for us not so much to scurry about shopping but to think about the nurturing nature of Dao and how we ourselves can flow out of ourselves naturally toward others in a natural nurturing way and be ourselves the light in the dark. It really is a good time to think not so much about shopping and the new stuff we can get or give but about the ways we have to bring light into the dark.
We are lucky to have this church which gives to us some specific ways to bring light into the dark. Jane Holt and her work with Paw Pals gives our natural concern for animals a way to flow out toward animals and the people who care for them. We also know that these are really tough economic times for many people in our community and our tie to Quanada and its food pantry and our tie to the YWCA enable us to bring a little light into the darkness of these tough times. And we love Sebastian and all the little ones of this church but we are naturally nurturing to all little ones and the diaper fund enables our nurturing to flow out beyond ourselves and shed a little light there too where families struggle to take care of their little ones. There are other ways to bring a little light in the dark, environmental organizations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders. We can talk about more of them during the talk back and over coffee, but I feel deeply thankful for these ways our own church helps all of us let our natural care for others flow out in constructive ways in our community.
I'd like to end this rather unusual Daoist Christmas talk with a little story. It's about a little 7 year-old boy we will call Sam. Now Sam has been raised as a Unitarian and has gone to Unitarian Sunday School. A few days before Christmas Sam's parents take him to see Santa. Now Sam figures that Santa must be an expert on the meaning of Christmas and he is looking forward to talking to him. Of course when Sam waits in line at the mall and finally gets on Santa's lap Santa only has one question. "Little boy," asks Santa, "what do you want for Christmas?" Sam is so puzzled by the question that Santa asks him again, "Little boy, what do you want for Christmas?" Sam thinks a bit and finally says to Santa, "Santa, don't you know that simplicity comes from letting go of what you want?" Santa doesn't understand the boy so he says to him, "Well, how about a nice football?" "That would be nice," Sam said, and he went away happily because he had already figured out that what he would give Santa for Christmas was a copy of the Tao te Ching.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.