Wednesday, September 23, 2020


When our church administrator Barbara George died, many years ago now, I was doing a pretty good job of holding it together right up until the moment I asked for my favorite breakfast muffin- the carrot ginger muffin- at the coffee shop counter, and they were totally out. The counter-person said, “I don’t think we make those anymore.” I requested my emergency backup muffin, and they were out of that too. The grief of losing Barbara, the stress of supporting the staff, keeping things running, planning a memorial I had been able to hold, but the loss of this muffin, somehow was too much. I returned to my car full of rage and grief and unable to face my day, I sat in the driver’s seat overwhelmed with emotion, and couldn’t bring myself to start the car and head to the church. Intellectually I knew these feelings were the wrong size for the loss of a muffin, but it seemed this muffin served some role of comfort and support I needed now. It was a load bearing muffin.

In late march, early April when we were all trying to adapt to the shelter at home directives, friend after friend posted the loss of a favorite food missing from the stores, of a favorite ritual with their child that was no longer possible, an electronic device which chose just this moment to break down, and every post started with some variation of “I know it’s wrong to get so upset over a muffin when there is so much true suffering just now, but…”

So many things are changing now, so many things in motion -- Things we didn’t even realize could change. We are doing without things we never imagined we’d have to do without. Take a moment now to think of things touchstones that have been lost this year in your own life...

Let’s acknowledge that losing those touchstones is hard. It’s destabilizing. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel at that loss.

May of us rapidly found new touchstones. A social distance hike with friends, phone calls or video chats with family. I find that sitting on my porch for a few minutes off and on throughout the day helps me feel connected to the wider world and the interconnected web of life. If you’ve developed some new touchstones, type those in the chat if you like. [pause]

Before my son went back to school, he was supposed to quarantine for a week. His bedroom was so tiny, it would have been cruel to ask him to shut himself in there for a week, so we all quarantined together. I worried whether we could make it 8 days without shopping, but we determined to fill up our fridge, and I reassured myself that could always order from that new local business that offers same day delivery of groceries. But just before the quarantine, our fridge died, we lost most of that food, and the only repair guy in town couldn’t come until after the quarantine had begun. I went to the website of the grocery delivery company and there was a new banner that they had closed their delivery service the previous day, as business had been too slow. I thought I had shored up my pandemic life, but everything I had counted on disappeared right when I needed it.

I had already committed to talk to you about touchstones today, about the loss of old touchstones and the creation of new ones, but of course any touchstone can be lost, that is what is making this time so difficult, not one loss, not one change, but one loss after another. The losses of Covid, the losses to our democracy, the storms, the fires, the economy.

What will endure all these changes? What will we hold on to?

The home I grew up in was bordered by a tiny stream in which my friends and I loved to play. On the other side of the creek was a big rock that stuck out like a shelf. Over the years as the bank eroded more and more of the rock was exposed until it was large enough to climb on. Recently I was back in my old neighborhood and saw that “big rock” was still there, now completely exposed and surrounded on both sides by water. Big enough for 2 small children to play on.

Sometimes in the rushing river of change, we feel like we are the soil, the silt washed away. Today I want to focus on what remains. What is the solid rock that is revealed by all this change? What is strong enough that it can split the creek in 2, can shape a river with its strength and solidity? Perhaps the word for that inner strength is integrity. When we hold onto our principles and values while wind, water and fire storm around us, that is integrity. Integrity is the act of holding onto a moral core, so that when the storms come there is a strength at our center which is not washed away.

Think about our Universalist fore-bearers who believed that no one was left out of God’s inclusive love -- that each and every person had inherent dignity and worth. Remember the Universalists who turned that core belief into action as part of the abolitionist movement, remember universalist congregations like our Cortland church who participated in the underground railroad. Consider UU churches today who act as sanctuary churches. Love, compassion for all persons -- these are the strong stones of universalism.

Think about our Unitarian fore-bearers who believed that reason and scientific truth must be part of religious integrity -- Fore-bearers like Joseph priestly, a chemist who discovered oxygen and carbonated water, who was also a founding minister of English Unitarianism. Even when he was driven from his home in England he held fast to his Unitarian principles. Science itself is constantly revealing new truths, and debunking or complexifying old findings. Our knowledge of chemistry has grown exponentially since Priestley’s time, and we now know some of his theories turned out to be wrong. Knowledge itself is changing, but an intention to know the truth, to test and retest, that can endure. The guidance of reason and the results of science are strong touchstones from our Unitarian tradition.

Take a moment now to consider- what principles, what values, what intentions are part of your own sense of personal integrity? What is it that we strengthen, that we cling to in the storm? 

I invite you now to take in your hand the touchstone you have brought with you to this service. Take a moment to feel its unique texture. Feel how it keeps its shape when you squeeze it, feel its weight as it rests in your hand. Bring to mind your intentions for what you want to strengthen in yourself, what will guide you through this tumultuous time. [pause] let this stone remind you of those things. You might keep this stone on a windowsill where you see it often or put it in your pocket. As you see it or feel it in the coming days, let it remind you of your inner strength and integrity, of those principles and intentions that will not be washed away, but by your strength and commitment, will cause the stream to change shape, to flow around the strength of those principles.

Nothing lasts forever, even the hardest rocks are shaped by the flow of water over time. There’s nothing wrong with being, like the soil, washed into new places and forms. But as we head into what is sure to be a tumultuous fall, in what continues to be a challenging year, remember your own inner strength- even when the bakery stops making your favorite muffin, your critical technology fails, or you cannot reach out and hug your dear friends and family, you have an inner strength that you can call on. Even when the fabric of society seems to erode, hold fast to those touchstones of truth, of compassion, hold fast to your integrity and let those shape the new world that is taking form around us even now.