Preparing the Heart, Receiving the Gift

Prepare (A Blessing for Advent)
by Jan Richardson

Strange how one word
will so hollow you out.
But this word
has been in the wilderness
for months. Years.

This word is what remained
after everything else
was worn away
by sand and stone.
It is what withstood
the glaring of sun by day,
the weeping loneliness of
the moon at night.

Now it comes to you
racing out of the wild,
eyes blazing
and waving its arms,
its voice ragged with desert
but piercing and loud
as it speaks itself, again and again:

Prepare, prepare.

It may feel like
the word is leveling you,
emptying you
as it asks you to give up
what you have known.

It is impolite
and hardly tame,
but when it falls
upon your lips
you will wonder
at the sweetness,

like honey
that finds its way
into the hunger
you had not known
was there.

Preparing the Heart, Receiving the Gift

(A Sermon for Advent)
by Rev. Daivd Carl Olson

(While lighting the Advent candles)

The Kings left their homes to follow the star, the sign that foretold the auspicious birth. Hope.

The Animals grazed on hill and valley, stood in barnyard and stable, sang their songs of moos and mahs, neighs and coos. Faith.

The Mother felt stirrings in her body, asking the father to feel these kicks. “Right there. Right there.” Love.

The Shepherds heard songs from the heavens, felt themselves lifted up, shouted to all their neighbors that something new was coming, to town and countryside, to high and low. Peace. 

(from the Pulpit)

“Strange how one word will so hollow you out,” Jan Richardson declares, “Prepare! Prepare!”

We are a people, one people, a whole people, on a journey together. A few months ago, the leadership of this church talked about how we would prepare to do the work of discerning the mission of this congregation, the mission not for two hundred years ago, not even for a decade ago, but the mission for today. The mission for today when this downtown Baltimore is bursting with accomplishment and hope, new residents and new opportunities. The mission for today, when the greatest generation of leaders in our country are passing away, and the “Baby Boomers” are retiring, and as a younger generation of people is making new decisions about how to live in a changing economy and more internationalized culture;. The mission for today, when the racism implanted in our national culture and the recent events in our community—and the ongoing events related to the trials of our police officers—ask us to reconsider the status quo ante of our city. The mission for today, when you and I in this place are called to look backward some 200 years to our beginnings, and choose among those things that we wish to bring forward unchanged, and sort out those old habits and inheritances that we must understand and explain and maybe leave behind. “Prepare, prepare.” Something new is about to happen.

 The leadership of our Board, began our work together by bringing in Rev. David Pyle, the Executive Director of the Joseph Priestley District of the Unitarian Universalist Association, to help us prepare for our work of shared leadership. We prepared for our work together by listing some of the norms that we expect of one another. 

To be respectful of one another as congregational leaders in our communications.  We will seek to practice communication that is inclusive, respectful, and listens to each other’s experience.  We will make a practice of not interrupting one another, speaking from our own voice and perspective rather than that of others, and without a need to immediately correct one another.  We recognize that both individual Board members and the Minister have different styles of speaking and listening, and we will seek to communicate in ways that can best be heard by those different styles.

The ways we speak with each other matters. The words we use with one another matter. We are a whole people on a journey together . . . and on that journey, our communication with each other matters.

Nearly 20 years ago, Miguel Ruiz published a little book that he called a Book of Toltec Wisdom and a practical guide to personal freedom. The Four Agreements was a popular little book that many of us read and considered. “Don’t take anything personally,” the Second Agreement told us. “Nothing others do is because of you. What others do say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”

Third Agreement: “Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.”

Fourth Agreement: “Always do your best. Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.” 

These are simple agreements, direct, contained. Easy to speak. Easy to accept. Fractures in the agreements easy to identify in another; sometimes not seen, not recognized in ourselves. And so they become tools for self-growth, for steps on the journey not only for community health, but steps toward personal freedom.  

It is the First Agreement I want to bring our attention to on this Advent morning. “Be impeccable with your word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.”

Words are powerful in a community like ours. The words that we speak carry a power to shape the ways that we behave with one another. It is our language that allows us to have a culture together, and it is the word we use that distinguishes us from other communities. In this community our word includes our affirmation of the innumerable ways that we are joined together. “The interconnected web of existence of which we are a part” is the way the principles of our association put it. We belong to one another—in our word—we are part of one another, part of the existence that every person in this room shares. 

To be impeccable in our word is for our speech to be without sin. “Impeccable. without fault or flaw. Impeccable: unblemished, spotless, pristine. We are impeccable with our word when we say what we mean and mean what we say—and when we speak our word with the expectation that it will cause no break in our unity. Everything that needs to be said can be spoken in more than one way. We get to choose. To be impeccable in speech is to choose the right words for the listener to hear, and for the transaction of speaking and hearing to be “on target,” for the health and wholeness of the relationship.

We need to practice impeccable speech. We need to attempt it and to learn it by habit. We write it into the norms of the leaders of this congregation because we haven’t lived it yet; but we accept that we can grow into impeccable speech.

And also we need to practice impeccable speech with ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I do a few things with my speech that hold me back. I’m not talking about the ways I curse like a workingman (although I F-bomb do). I’m talking about the judgmental attitude I bring about my own life, my work life, my relational life, my spiritual life. I shared a few days ago with some of you that I feel the need to redouble my efforts of my spiritual practice which includes two things: rising early to spend some good time writing my morning pages; and then getting exercise. I realized last week that the last time I wrote morning pages was nearly two weeks ago; nearly ten days passed when I did not take my morning quiet time to write freehand whatever is on my mind, and then to sit with my morning prayer list—some of you are on it—to imagine you as I say “May you be filled with loving kindness; may you be well; may you be peaceful and at ease; may you be whole.”

And then I saw the automatic withdrawal from my checking account of the bill for the gym, and I realized that I haven’t been to the gym since a couple of days before Thanksgiving.

These two realities—no morning pages for ten days, no gym since last month—are indicators of my life being very busy right now. The upcoming holidays, of course, and a visit to Rhode Island at Thanksgiving. Anticipated and unexpected deaths in our community. A “Black tie” wedding at the Walters yesterday, with a rehearsal on Friday. Life is full.

But what speech do I bring to this? Do I complain about how busy I am? Do I catastrophise about it (you know, make it into an insurmountable catastrophe—“You will never succeed in being the spiritual leader you are required to be, and you will never lose the weight that you must, and so you will crash and burn and die—and even go to the hell that you don’t believe in!”) Is that impeccable speech?

Or do I say out loud to myself, “Life sure is full these days.” And look carefully at my calendar, and pencil it in: “Tomorrow morning, I will sit and write.” Or “I will pack my gym bag tonight so that it will be ready when I go out the door in the morning.” And especially, “Universal Love is forgiving; Universal Love is powerful; Universal Love is reaching out to me, so that I may make and keep my agreements.”

Words are powerful. In religious traditions of the Ancient Near East, there were any number of creator gods who spoke the world into existence. You’ve heard it said, “In the beginning of creation, . . . God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.”

And in the time of the Greek philosophers, a Hebrew sage told that story another way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . . The true Light was coming into the world, and the darkness could not overcome it.” 

It is Advent time, the time when we prepare our hearts. We prepare our hearts for our recollection of the the coming of the Sovereign of Peace, the universal peace that will rule our hearts and minds, will govern our behavior, will set us free. We prepare our hearts by practicing impeccable speech, by describing to ourselves the love and joy with which we may hold ourselves, and by sharing with others the faith and hope we have for the community that we are building, the one whole community that we are being and becoming on our journey together. 

“Strange how one word will so hollow you out, . . . ‘Prepare! Prepare!’” 

We prepare our hearts by the practice of impeccable speech, and that preparation yields the great gift: a community of impeccable speech. A home for wisdom, ancient and modern. A platform for personal and collective freedom. And Love. Love for self, Love for others, Love for God.

Ashe, ashe. Salaam, Shalom. Blessed be. Amen.


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