Life Boat: Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean

April 10, 2011
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

THE SERMON                             

A couple of summers ago I was at the beach at Nantasket. I had waded out into the water to about my calves. I'm afraid of the ocean, so I don't often swim in it. Waves and I don't get along, and I'm really scared of what might be in the water. So I was wading around and a wave came up behind me and clipped me in the back of the knees and I went down. I got soaked. I came up sputtering with skinned knees and a bathing suit full of sand. This little boy - he was really beautiful, brown-skinned with shiny black curly hair, maybe about eleven - was watching me. And he looked at me with this very concerned, motherly expression and said, "Never turn your back on the sea." I have never forgotten that.

We are at a scary place as a human species, a scary time. There's a lot of fear and aggression between humans -- and a lot of turmoil in our ecosystem that we have caused and don't know yet how to manage. A lot of big waves are out there right past the shoreline. It's hard to know how to engage, how to swim out into it -- and we wonder whether or not we should. It may be better to scramble for dry land and observe with a pair of binoculars.

It is really tempting to spend our spiritual lives on the shore doing something pleasant and peaceful like collecting shells. Near enough the ocean to feel it against our toes, but nice and safe. Pick up something pretty, look at it, you tuck it in our pockets to take home. Don't go in the water. Turn my back on the sea and hope it doesn't come up and clip me in the knees and knock me down.
The ocean is a vast and intimidating mystery. It is a metaphor for the life of the soul -- our souls, which are part of the soul of nature and part of the soul of God. Mysterious, deep, inscrutable, beguiling and dangerous. A lot of things deep in the ocean are so foreign and scary that we might prefer to see a movie about them than actually experience any of these wonders firsthand. It's like the old joke about heaven: the Unitarian dies and sees two doors in front of him. One says "Heaven," the other says, "A Lecture About Heaven."  Where do you think he goes?

"Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord." At every given moment, some living creature is in this state. Our mistake is in thinking that we are not there with them. If we are finding out anything in this new era of global interdependence, it is that when one people are in the depths, all are there. It is not just a concept anymore, global consciousness. Take a look at the revolutions spreading across the world from country to country and see it in action. We have made it possible through technology to spread contagions of the spirit and the soul just as quickly as a contagious disease can spread through populations by infection. The fate of the planet is interwoven. No one is left out. We are not on the shore but in the ocean already. What do we have to say that is real and deep enough and humble enough to acknowledge that? What is our place in it? Observers? Commenters? Analysts? Arguers?  Swimmers? Passengers on a lifeboat? Ship captains?  Choose your metaphor, and let yourself feel what it might mean to your life.
I spent this past weekend attending the Minns Lectures in Boston - a two-day symposium that asked about the future of Unitarian Universalism (and by extension, the mainline Church in America). Where are we now? What's possible? And what's next? And for what purpose?  All six of the esteemed speakers -- UU ministers from different regions of the country doing ministry is very different settings -- had one foundational message in common (and by the way, I was quoted by one speaker and Stuart's blog was acknowledged as being a profound inspiration to another one! Norwell pride!).  They said it's time to go deep. It's time to swim out past the shallows and to leave the safety of the shore, looking at pretty things and collecting them. We are a people with a hopeful, loving message in a time of great fear and confusion, and we have to get deep. As my colleague Marilyn Sewell put it, the work of a mature religious people is to be willing to have our egos diminished so as to merge with the greater reality, to serve it. We must move as individuals from being self-centered to being soul-centered. It is as good a start as any to begin with confessing our alienation, our fear, and our resistance to being drawn out of our heads and into the deeper place within where transformation happens.

This is not a punishment. It should not be regarded as a chore! The greatest souls who ever lived have always assured us that to lose ourselves and to merge with the great reality is actually the greatest joy and satisfaction a human being can experience. Anthony DeMello illuminates this in the story of the Salt Doll:

A salt doll journeyed for thousands of miles over land, until it finally came to the sea. It was fascinated by this strange moving mass, quite unlike anything it had ever seen before. "Who are you?" said the salt doll to the sea. The sea smilingly replied, "Come in and see."  So the salt doll waded in. The farther it walked into the sea the more it dissolved, until there was only very little of it left. Before the last bit dissolved, the doll exclaimed in wonder, "Now I know what I am!" (Anthony DeMello, The Song of the Bird)

We do not yet know what we are. We have believed for so long that we are a collection of interesting and intelligent people who care about a lot of the same things, and that's really it. Nothing wrong with that, but we have a much deeper identity and calling. We have a healing, reconciling theology to transmit that we have not yet found a deep enough way to transmit. We are on friendly terms with a calling that wants to claim us entirely, not just when it is convenient for us but always. Not just with the mind, but with the heart, the body, the soul and the whole self. The way we spend our time, prioritize our goals, spend our money, the way we greet newcomers, the often-shallow assumptions we make about what really brings us together, the way we speak of that.

You know that an important part of our tradition is self-culture: learning, forming the self, growing, examining, studying. I learned just this weekend that the final element of self-culture is something the 19th century Unitarians called "self-consecration"-  the dedication of the self to God, or to the holy. This goes way beyond doing good works. It requires being a person who spends a portion of every day intentionally aligning ourselves with the spirit of peace, truth and love. Because beyond doing good works there is the work of becoming whole, which begins with the acknowledgement that one is just as broken as the world we aim to fix. The work of religious community therefore goes far beyond ego-strengthening. It aims to make all of us more whole not for the sake of our egos but for the sake of Love, for the sake of the world. Here as a church we train ourselves here to go deep, because the depths are our element. The depths draw us from mere fondness to love, from casual commitment to sacrifice, from mere tolerance to radical solidarity, from heady critical analysis to deep, heart-felt, visceral understanding.

If you do not entirely grasp what I am saying, that's okay. This is not easy to express or to understand. If I could, I would take you down to the Norris Reservation to show you what I mean. We would walk together down the path and past the pond on the left, and keep walking until we reach the fork in the path, and take a left and walk until we went down to the North River. And we would follow the river until we got to the boathouse and then we'd go into the boathouse and out to the railing and lean on it and look at the river, and see its strong tide as it rushes to the sea. And I would say to you, "Do you see that? Do you see how the river rushes to meet up with the sea out in Scituate? Do you see how powerful it is, how beautiful? That is you. That is who you are. You are the river whose greater reality is the sea, the vast wonder of the ocean. That is what your soul is doing, that movement, that rushing tide. It is rushing to meet the sea.

All the intellectual superiority, all the confidence with which we analyze and judge and pronounce -- that is an illusion. The soul that rushes toward the deep - that is the reality.   Would you like a guru to help you grasp this truth about yourself? I have one for you. His name is Susumu Sugawara. He is a fishing boat captain from the Japanese island of Oshima. Been fishing abalone for 42 years with his boat the Sunflower. When the tsunami hit on March 11, Mr. Sugawara turned his boat not to shore, but out to sea, the violent, roiling sea. He told CNN, "If I didn't save my boat, my island would be isolated and in trouble." He steered his boat into and through fifty-to-sixty-foot waves. Not just once but four times. He said, "I talked to my boat and said you've been with me 42 years. If we live or die, then we'll be together, then I pushed on full throttle." My god, what a spirit. A 69-year old man who heads straight into the very real and immediate threat of death so that he MIGHT survive to be a lifeline for his people. Mindfully setting out to the most dangerous depths to either die, or to survive to help. As if that was the only choice. Which, of course, it is, for the person governed by love.
We think of a lifeboat as a vessel drifting on calm seas taking endangered seafarers back to the safety of the shore. Mr. Sugawara and the Sunflower give me a new way to think about what it means to be a "life" boat. There is that old quote, "a ship is safe in harbor, but that is not what ships are made for."
Before he set out to drive through the 50-foot waves, Mr. Sugawara said a word of farewell to his other boats. He spoke to them, saying goodbye and saying he was sorry that he could not save them, too.  And there is the key to this life governed by love: it is to recognize the soul in all things, to honor the life and purpose of all things, even the inanimate.  To spend our days not locked in the confines of the mind and ego, but merged with the deeper reality, with such oneness between all living things that "when one cries the other will taste salt."

May those salt tears always remind us of our true home: not on the shore, but in the great, salty deep.