In the Shadow of the Web

February 7, 2016

Readings and Sermon

Opening Words – #120 from Lifting our Voices by Erika Hewitt

Reader I: I don’t have anything to say.

Reader 2: Well, I do – but it might not be interesting to anyone.

I: I have secrets inside of me, and struggles, and I don’t know if I’m ready to share them.

2: I want to hear what you have to say.

I: I want to speak of the deepest things together.

2: I want to hear what you dream about, what you hope for.

I: I want to know how you have come to arrive at this resting point along your journey.

2: What if I speak and you don’t understand me?

I: I will listen, and listen again, until my hearing becomes understanding.

2: What if I can’t find the words to share the world inside of me?

I: I believe that wise words will emerge from you.

2: How can I trust you to hold my life’s stories? You, who I may not even know?

I: By knowing that, as I receive part of your story, I will give you part of mine.

2: How will this work? What will happen? What awaits us?

I: We can find out anything by beginning.

2: Let us begin to listen, and trust, and to know one another more deeply.


Chalice Lighting – from The Fire of Ancient Faith by M. Maureen Killoran

It matters that we remember that each one of us walks this chilly world in some way as a stranger. It matters that we remember that the purpose of community is to welcome the stranger in from the cold. May the flame of this chalice mark the reality that when we welcome the stranger, we open our hearts to the making of a friend. In the light of this common flame, may we bear witness to our values and recommit ourselves to the dream that one day the world, and our hearts within it, may be whole.

Meditation – from Lifting our Voices #156 by Ken Collier

Part of the ugliness of my heart is the ugliness of the clear cut forest.
Part of the fear in my heart is the fear in the heart of the ghetto, as well as in the heart of the gated community.
Part of the anger in my heart is the anger in the heart of the abused child.
The ignorance and sloth and greed in the world is reflected in my heart.
And how shall I heal?
How shall I overcome these things in my heart, if I do not overcome them in the world?
How shall I approach the divine if I turn from its appearance in the world,
Even in the person of the least of these, my relatives all around me?

Sermon – “In the Shadow of the Web”
Rev. Tracy Johnson

I sat down last month with Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, the UUA Common Read. And let me just go ahead and shamelessly promote the potluck and book discussion sponsored by the Social Justice Committee here on Friday evening, March 4th, where we will talk about the book! So with that out of the way . . . I sat down to read and, wow, did the introduction take me back. All that cold concrete and steel, cages, and the unmistakable harsh clanging of heavy metal doors as they lock behind, keeping out and keeping in. A world unto itself I came to find; a sociology major with some human services credits under my belt and no understanding of the criminal justice system other than what I learned first-hand, I was appalled at the time. Now, some 25 years hence, it still conjures up the same disquiet in my soul. Like Bryan Stevenson, I had never had a conversation with someone on death row, and his situation is a little different considering the injustices he writes about and has sought to correct. But over the years I sat across those same kinds of tables from men who had taken lives; defiled women and children, and I had to figure out how to reconcile my initial gut reaction to the story as presented in their files, with my deeper sense of persons, regardless of their acts over the course of time, as beings with a core of worth, of dignity, of value. In the end it was often the other story, the one they told, not of the immediate incident of concern, but the whole story of their journey, that enabled me to see the glimmer of hope at the center. I like what Barbara Brown Taylor describes as a spiritual practice of sorts where she envisions other people as “peepholes into God.” The majestic and the terrible on either ends of a living continuum.

Beyond that, of course is the further unsettled feeling that arose from spending my days in the midst of an oppressive system that I had no real power to affect. And perhaps this is more relatable. We all have experience with systems that rub against the grain of our own sensibilities. This is when it is easier to know what to do; when injustice is clear and we rise up against it in whatever ways we can, determined to foster change. But there are times when it is hard to face people and situations that strike us at our core, taking the wind out of our sails for a moment, or sometimes longer; a recurring visitation that we may not even understand in terms of why it is difficult; why it gives us that twisted feeling in our stomachs.

Mary Rose O’Reilley is a self-described Quaker, Buddhist and Shepherd who writes about all of these experiences in her book, The Barn at the End of the World. A Quaker friend inquired of her one day, “How do you stand the brutality of farming?” She responded that she found it reassuring because, unlike ‘cleaner occupations’ like teaching or corporate finance where the brutality exists, but is hidden, in farming you know it is there. She likes her light and darkness laid out like a country landscape, she says, with no subterfuge. No subtleties to negotiate. But most of the time, this is what we get: subtlety. We wander about in the gray area with all of its uncertainties, trying to navigate the muddiness. What about that situation hits so close to home? On the surface it seems innocuous enough and yet, there is some kernel in it that makes us want to turn and go the other way.

These are the moments that can eat away at us if we allow them to, but I want to suggest that they are actually opportunities. And to offer a little insight into my own theology, since Rev. Don has shared why he is everything from a UU Taoist to a UU Humanist and promises to offer more in this vein, I believe that what some call “God” is actually an amazing energy that comes to us in the form of potential; opportunity is holy and alive with possibility. When Moses wanted to know who he should tell the people he had spoken with, the answer in some translations isn’t necessarily the great “I am,” but instead, “I will be what I will be.” Potential, as I read it! What this ancient story is trying to tell us is that opportunities present themselves as sacred portals into the future. So this leaves us with a choice. We can turn tail and run or we can take courage and enter through the gate; a gate that is more often than not a doorway into the self, leading to the kind of exploration from which we grow to become our best selves.

We talk about our interconnectedness to all that is; that we are a part of an interdependent web. And when it comes to human relationships we are certainly dependent upon one another. We rely on each other, yes, but we also depend on others in this shadowy kind of way where people inadvertently show us things about ourselves that we might be just as happy to not think about. We are truly affected by these situations and interactions. We react to them, but when we do so quickly or without thought, we are doing so out of a place of inner discomfort. What I’d like to offer is this idea of seeing opportunity in the midst of it all. How can I grow from this?


Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun, author and teacher, suggests that much of our response to the hard stuff is rooted in fear and has, over the course of our lives, become habitual. We are constantly coming upon crossroads in our daily experience, opportunities to choose which way to go; how to respond. We tend to flee discomfort rather than simply sitting with it for a bit; noticing it; listening to it, and listening again until our hearing becomes understanding, as our opening words tell us. In this way we interrupt the habitual and begin the journey inward.

The problem with this, of course, is that we might not always like what we see. I can look in the mirror and there they are: the ever more obvious signs of aging – the gray hair, the wrinkles, what gravity has done . . .. And it’s the same with my inner self, too. I see the moments of snap judgement, the anger or fear that grab me before I know what hit. The harder thing at times is to be gentle with myself; to notice and listen deeply in the midst of predicaments; not to judge the self, but to allow the moment and its energy to wash over me; to experience it with all my senses if I can and to be compassionate toward myself first. I am a human being with all the potential – there’s that word again – all the potential that exists in each of us. I am convinced that the hard stuff is the holy stuff.

You know, my own journey has brought me places I never could have imagined; through single parenthood, a stint on the other side of the poverty line, and through the trauma of abuse. Hard places for a relatively care free, middle class girl from the Connecticut shoreline to travel. Places that can leave you ashamed or make you cynical and prone to blaming if you are not careful. I learned a lot about humanity in those days; about our interdependence when it’s good and helpful, and when it’s not so much. By the time I was sitting on those hard silver stools listening to stories much harder than my own, I had come to believe that we are all so much more alike than different; a choice or two away from one another in terms of circumstance.


And here I am again, having found myself in a place of listening to some very hard stuff, snippets of story from the women who cross the threshold at WE CAN where I serve and doing what I can to offer them possibilities, something sacred to hold onto in the midst of their pain or confusion. And maybe because I have been down that road a ways I am able to do this listening without judgement. Or maybe it is that I have had some practice at “sitting with.” We are all each other, we say in my work, a philosophy that undergirds our approach to empowerment, because we accept that in an instant the tables can turn and any one of us could be the one in need.

I’ve been reading a bit lately about the practice of tonglen, which is Tibetan for “sending and receiving.” As a practice it refers to our willingness to take on the pain of others that we know are hurting and to send them whatever we feel might ease that pain. It is couched in a breathing practice – breathing in the painful – breathing out the relief. But it is the intentionality of it that sets the stage for an approach to life that is less reactive and that builds compassion and understanding. One that raises an awareness of our connections to people and places, acknowledging that we are a part of the whole.

This, too has its shadowy side. Let’s say there was a bank robbery reported in the news. Instantly, we feel for all the people caught up in this situation – the people going about their business, the bank tellers – it angers us; if we have ever been in a similar situation it bring us back to it – we pause, breathing in all the emotions we can imagine those people feeling and as we release the breath we send out whatever we feel might ease those tensions. It’s a little counterintuitive, because normally we want to avoid taking in the negative; preferring to hold the positive close instead. And then there is this harder piece where we consider the actual bank robbers – what in their lives has brought them to this act? What are they struggling with in the moment as persons? And we can take that in too and release whatever healing they may need. Not as easy to do, because we are in the habit of being angry about such things, but ultimately that anger can have a domino effect within our own souls that leads to cynicism and categorizing. We don’t have to approve of the act, but we don’t have to let it tear us up inside either.


This is a bigger world situation, but it illustrates the fact that we are related to and dependent upon all of what is going on around us; affected by it and therefore it is an opportunity to choose a response. If we bring it down a notch we can see that it might be useful when someone cuts us off in summer traffic here on the Cape, or when a coworker says something that is hurtful. It happens in our family life and, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that it happens in our church life as well.

We spend a lot of time here, together in this place! I have come to realize that I could likely find something to do here every day of the week if I wanted to! What that means is that we are in close relationship with one another; part of a system of relationships; the interdependent web on a local level. What affects one of us, affects all of us to some degree; this ripple effect that grows into an ever widening circle; expanding to our outer edges and even beyond our walls.

There is a lovely interconnectedness about all of this; a finely choreographed dance that blends all the individual pieces into an amazing performance on the stage of life. And in the shadow of that interconnectedness there are the harder parts. Because we care so deeply our emotions can feel raw at times. We will never all agree on everything all of the time. Such absolutes aren’t realistic. We can become frustrated and prone to habitual reactions. Or we can try a little tonglen – feeling what we feel in the moment, but sitting with it, noticing it, listening to it; breathing in what we instinctively want to avoid, and considering what might ease the situation as we breathe that into the moment as well. These are holy opportunities to heal one’s self and offer healing to those we care for in this church home.


Ken Collier asks in the meditation I shared, “How shall I approach the divine if I turn from its appearance in the world, even in the least of these, my relatives all around me?” That’s us here in the midst of our web of existence, relating to one another, depending upon each other to hear ourselves unto our highest and greatest good.   Holy is the potential. May we choose to engage with it, not just in its most joyous moments, but when it presents its shadowy side; that, as we say each week, all souls may grow into harmony with the Divine.

So may it be.

Closing Words – from Lifting our Voices #133 by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Adapted

We are one, after all, you and I;
Together we suffer,
Together exist,
And forever will recreate each other.

Shadow of the Web pdf