A Shaft of Sunlight

June 7th, 2015       Rev. Fiona Heath

When I was growing up,

My parents would take us into Toronto to visit the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I was always drawn to the Henry Moore sculptures – huge, rotund, solid yet fluid, combining strange angles yet so recognizably human.

I was never sure if I liked the sculptures or not.  

But they are powerful and compelling,

His giant bronze figures speak to me of how we come from the earth,

yet dominate it too.

Henry clearly could see the human form in some way that I could not.

He was able to go past the “what is” of reality and see “what might be”.

Moore said, “If an artist tries consciously to do something to others,

it is to stretch their eyes, their thoughts,

to something they would not see or feel if the artist had not done it.

To do this, he has to stretch his own first.”

Stretching our eyes.

This is how we learn to see possibility.

This is how society changes, how people evolve,

by someone seeing the possibilities of a different way of doing things.

We live in a society created by human imagination.

People have imagined into being lights that turn on or off when you clap.

Cars, cell phones, computers all had to be imagined before they could be created.

Stretching our eyes lets us see what might be.

It is often easier for younger minds, which seem to be more elastic.

When we are young, we feel limitless,

possibilities tumbling out in all directions.

Sometimes though, too many possibilities can be overwhelming, even immobilize us.

It feels harder to make any choice when there are too many choices.

I feel this way sometimes standing in the grocery store in front of all the toothpaste.

But not seeing any possibilities at all is equally paralyzing.

We give up when we no longer see options,

especially when we are in a bad situation.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankel writes about how he survived a concentration camp during World War II.

He realized that the people who survived were often those who found a way to live beyond the horror of their current situation.

Some of those who died were those who could no longer see the possibility of a different life beyond the camp. 

They simply gave up, stopped engaging in life, and turned their face to the wall.

This is where possibility comes in.

When we can see that any situation comes with choices,

that it is always within our power to make a choice,

possibilities arise.

We can change our point of view so that a bleak situation has a shaft of sunlight.

That shaft of sunlight is a way forward which allows agency,

gives us back our dignity.

It might not be an easy way forward, it might be a strange way forward,

but once possibilities reappear, so too does hope.

Frankel found this to be true in the concentration camp.

Prisoners who could focus on their loved ones, or tell stories, or make music, who reminded themselves that life could be different,

tended to survive.

They were able to enlarge their frame of reference,

and imagine themselves still connected to something good.

One group of men turned themselves into a university,

offering a variety of classes – with no pens and papers, no books,

just their knowledge and experience.

They weren’t living in a fantasy, ignoring the harsh reality of the camp,

but they were able to reach for something more,

a university – which elevated them into scholars and students,

not just prisoners. 

This activity gave their lives meaning. In telling a new story about themselves, they made themselves more than their circumstances.

We live within the stories we tell, the framework we create.

We live within our personal story,

within the Canadian story,

and within the Unitarian Universalist framework.

These frames help provide meaning and direction for our lives.

They help us tell our story.

But our frames of meaning sometimes come up short.

People get stuck in a dead end, a seemingly unsolvable problem.

It can feel like there are no options.

It’s a terrible place to be.

Kierkegaard once said:

"If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power,

but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which,

young and ardent, sees the possible…

“And what wine is so sparkling, what is so fragrant, what is so intoxicating, as possibility!" 

A passionate sense of the possible allows us to transform ourselves.

It allows us to transform the world.

Dwelling in possibility reminds us that we can use our imagination to journey to new places.

American president John F. Kennedy imagined people standing on the moon.

The NASA scientists and engineers then had to figure out how to make the impossible possible on a daily basis. 

And in a decade, it was “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

As Unitarian Universalists we live in, and celebrate, the here and now.

We try to see the world as it is, to see it clearly and see it whole.

We use our reason to understand the world.

At the same time, we acknowledge that we live in mystery,

that there is always more to know.

Thinking about possibility reminds us that while we work to see life clearly, as it truly is, we must not be limited by what we see.

We must also look to see what is possible.

By enlarging our frame of reference, changing our understanding,

we imagine new worlds.

Philosopher Thomas Moore notes that

“We tend to consider imagination too lightly, forgetting that the life we make, for ourselves individually and for the world as a whole,

is shaped and limited only by the perimeters of our imagination.

“Things are as we imagine them to be, as we imagine them into existence. Imagination is creativity, and the way we make our world depends on the vitality of our imagination. “

(Moore in The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life)

It is when we journey into imagination that we can see what is not there yet.

There is a popular business anecdote about a shoe factory looking to expand its prospects abroad. 

The company sent two marketing scouts to a remote region of Africa to study the opportunities for expanding their business.  

One sent back a telegram saying:

Situation hopeless.  No one wears shoes.

The other writes back triumphantly:

Glorious business opportunity.  They have no shoes.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

&

The poet Emily Dickinson says “The possible's slow fuse is lit by the Imagination.”
 

There are so many ways we live unconsciously, shaped by social norms and forces. It’s hard to imagine living in society that doesn’t emphasize striving for success, which doesn’t measure people by financial status, that doesn’t focus on competition.

But we can try.

Many of my stories today have been taken from the book The Art of Possibility.

Written by Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, and his wife Rosamund, a psychologist,

it explores ways to open the self to possibility.

Zander is also a professor of music.

Rather than accepting the traditional way of marking and ranking students, he choose, in one class, to give all of his students at the conservatory an “A” at the outset of each semester. 

All that is required of them is that they write a letter in the first week of classes, post-dated to the end of the semester,

describing why he or she got the grade.

And, then, they are invited to live into that A.

Here’s part of a letter of one student,

describing his experience in the class:

In Taiwan, I was Number 68 out of 70 students.

I come to Boston and Mr. Zander says I am an A. Very confusing.

I walk about, [for] three weeks, very confused.

I am number 68, but Mr. Zander says I am an A student….

One day I discover I [am] much happier as an A than Number 68.

So I decide I am an A.

“An A,” Zander says, “can be given to anyone –

to a waitress, to your employer, to your mother-in-law,

to the members of the opposite team, and to the other drivers in traffic.

When you give an A, you find yourself speaking to people

not from a place of measuring how they stack up against your standards, but from a place of respect that gives them room to realize themselves.

Your eye is on the statue within the roughness of the uncut stone.

This A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into.”

(story written by Rev. Shawn Newton)

This seems like a very Unitarian practice:  to begin from a place of respect that allows people to live into themselves.

When we are gracious and able to offer an A to ourselves and those around us, it allows us to “see all of who we are and be all of who we are”.

Each of us is an A.

The A creates compassion. 

When we struggle, instead of berating ourselves for not being enough or doing enough, we can say “I did the best I could with what I had”.

Instead of condemning people for not being more like us,

we can try and see that they are doing the best they can.

Each of us is an A, doing the best we can.

As UUs this makes sense, on a planet to which we all belong, where we all have worth, we are all As.

This is what we try to celebrate on Sunday mornings,

that each of us is wonderful and valued as we are.

Gold stars are for everybody!

The Zanders also encourage us to live in a world,

not of measurement and standards,

but in a world of possibility that is “infinite, generative, and abundant”.

In the measurement world you set a goal and strive for it.

In the universe of possibilities, you set the context and let life unfold.

This is hard to do, it requires trust and attention, and accepting the unknown.

As the monk Thomas Merton said “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going.

What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”

This is what spiritual communities try to do.

We aren’t businesses or non-profits with set goals to achieve.

Instead we are temples of possibility.

We create a place where people can find courage, faith and hope.

We strive to create an atmosphere of respect,

one which supports creativity and compassion,

where people think less of success and more about contribution.


Each of us, always, has something to contribute,

whether that is beautiful music, or making the coffee,

or simply listening attentively.

All of us together make this community possible.

We do community well!

As we learn to think of ourselves as people with something special to contribute to the world, we can make a difference.

What if at the dinner table, you asked your children what they contributed today?

What if you asked that of yourself?

In the days to come, I invite you to give yourself and others an A.

I invite you to think of how you contribute to the world around you, in ways large or small.

May we continue to journey in our imaginations and dwell in possibility.

You never know what might happen next.

 (this sermon draws upon Rev. Shawn Newton’s sermon The Art of Possibility)

 


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