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Rev. Paul Sprecher

Second Parish in Hingham, www.secondparish.org

June 12, 2011

Centering Thought: “There is, happily, no solid, unchanging foundation to life, no place to stand permanently, since everything is moving in interdependence with everything else.”           -Paul F. Knitter


Reading  Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian, by Paul F. Knitter, formerly a Roman Catholic Priest, now the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York.


Pema Chödrön has helped me tune into what are the demands and the promise of mindfulness-practice. In her [book] The Wisdom of No Escape, she lays out three progressive steps that can enable us both to be mindful and to act mindfully:

Precision: Really face, don't ignore or run from, what is going on in you or around you. Be precise, be honest, and face it in all its beautiful or ugly detail. If you're feeling fearful, angry, depressed, joyful, satisfied, envious, or if someone just said something really nasty to you, or if you've just witnessed on TV the horror of some natural catastrophe or human violence — recognize it, don't deny it, let it be there in the form and feeling of whatever it is.

Gentleness: This goes a step further than facing what is happening. It means being kind toward it, even embracing it. Hold it gently and lovingly, not necessarily because it is good (as it may be), but because it is there. It's what's happening. Don't just tolerate it; accept it. Even if it is something downright awful, hold it gently, and if you can't love it, at least be nice to it.

Let go: Having faced whatever fact or feeling is there, having accepted and embraced it, we now release it. It's like taking a firm hold on the collar of a prancing puppy, tickling it under its chin, and then releasing our hold to let it go its way. We don't shout at or shoo it, we just loosen our hold on it — and allow to happen what will happen.

And at this point there can take place what Thich Nhat Hanh calls "the miracle of mindfulness." It's miraculous because it's uncanny, happily weird. In truly being mindful of the thoughts or feelings that the world around us stirs up within us, we find that we are able to deal with whatever the world throws at us. By acknowledging honestly, accepting lovingly, and then releasing gently whatever positive or negative emotion an event or a person or a memory may arouse within us, we find ourselves free to deal with it or respond to it in a way in which we, not the emotion, are doing the responding. Mindfulness is a bit like one of those security machines that you have to walk through at airports: it identifies and then removes what it is that can threaten both your own and all your fellow passengers' wellbeing. Mindfulness prevents us from being hijacked by our emotions or opinions….

In a journal entry from June 1998, I tried to detect the source of this miracle of mindfulness:

In being mindful, no matter what the feelings or thoughts are — no matter how intense the anger, deep the hurt, confusing the sense of inadequacy — they will tend to take care of themselves. Or better, they will be dissolved in the light and warmth of the fundamental unity, of the interconnecting Spirit, that is the most fundamental fact of existence.

It doesn't always work that way. But so often, miraculously, it does.[i]

Sermon:  Mindfulness                          

Forrest Church, minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist in New York City for over thirty years, was in the prime of his life when he received his death sentence.  In his late fifties, he was diagnosed with cancer of the throat and given only months to live.  It was completely unfair.  Neither his father nor his grandfather had lived to see their sixtieth birthday, and it seemed that he, too, would be torn untimely from his precious life.  He had the good fortune to live for another three years, and he did in fact live to see his sixtieth year.  Each day that went by was marked not so much with dread as with the realization of the preciousness of that one more day he had been given.  Each day was a reminder that only the love we give will remain after we are gone.  Each day was an opportunity to savor and live fully in just that day.  For a while now I have been using the benediction with which Forrest closed each service at All Souls. It ends with the words:  “This is the day we are given.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Mark Trautwein received his death sentence at the beginning of the AIDS crisis around 1982.  As a gay man, he had just begun to savor the integrity that came from acknowledging his sexual orientation and the possibility of living his true nature out loud when he was diagnosed with AIDS.  And then, all around him, friends and acquaintances were dying of a mysterious condition that at first struck his own community of gay men (though of course by now the epidemic is much more widespread, especially in Africa).  Anger consumed him and those around him.  And then, gradually, a new sense of community grew up; everyone was in this together; the only healing that could come to anyone was in caring for – loving – the others who were suffering.  He was fortunate to live long enough to be given the very first drugs that could stave off death from AIDS a little longer, and, thanks to those drugs, to stay alive until the development of protease inhibitors turned AIDS from an immediate death sentence into a chronic disease that could be managed, albeit only with a daunting regimen of medication.  He has now lived more than half of his life under a death sentence; looking back over the tragedy of living each day in the shadow of death, concludes:

What I’ve gained is precious. Above all, the constant companionship of plague has taught me that life is about living, not cheating death. Fighting disease is required and struggling with life inevitable. But I accept the outcomes now, whatever they are. My disease does not make me special, nor does my survival make me courageous.

On that day I walked from the hospital knowing I had “it,” I was given a great gift: the realization that we all dangle from that most delicate of threads and that the only way to live a life is to love it.[ii]

A man was gathering wood one day in the forest when he encountered a tiger and then another tiger….


Wait a minute!  This is grim stuff.  I thought we were going to be talking about summer and sun and fun today!  What happened to the anticipation of freedom, beach time, slowing down?


Most of us do not stare death in the face each day like Forrest Church or Mark Trautwein or our man between two tigers in the story for our children this morning.  Or at least we don’t know that we do.  And then we hear about the tragedy in Joplin, MO, two weeks ago, in which a tornado ripped through the town spreading devastation and death out of the blue.  We are shocked to hear of the tornados the struck Springfield, Monson and several other communities in South Central Massachusetts, causing death and destruction and enormous loss.  Or the earthquake and typhoon that struck the coast of Japan out of the blue and spread destruction and death in its wake, as well as the threat of a nuclear catastrophe.


Hold it right there!  This is getting much too grim!  It’s too painful to think about all of this just as the summer is about to begin, especially in a Unitarian Universalist sermon!  Let’s just not go there.


“This is that day that we are given.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Life is tough; death is certain.  It takes practice to live through it.  More specifically, it takes a practice.  The Buddha began to face this reality after having been raised in a palace where he learned and experienced only the finest things in life.  He was shielded from poverty and sickness and death; but he realized that something was missing, that his life was being lived in a bubble, that he wasn’t living a real life.  He left the palace and immersed himself in the grim and also joyful realities of life as it’s really lived.  He concluded that all of life is dukha, suffering, or, maybe better, disappointment, pain, anguish.  But he also realized that this dukha, this suffering, results from our attachment, our grasping, our expectation that our lives should be happy, that we should be able to hang on to the wonderful days of our lives, the summers of our days, all the time.  But then, over and over, those times end and we’re disappointed over and over again.  Life is tough.  Living requires practice.  The Buddha’s good news is that we can overcome suffering by learning to detach ourselves, to give up the expectation that everything will always be just fine, that we and those we love will be spared the bad things.  Giving up attachments takes practice.  In particular, The Buddha proposed that we spend some time each day in meditation, focusing on breathing in, breathing out, on letting go of the obsessive thoughts that crowd our minds and distract us from just living, just rejoicing in the day that we are given as a gift, whatever may overtake us, whether joyful or tragic or boring or frightening or fun. 

Many of us have learned to pray in a similar fashion, not so much to offer petitions that our particular wishes and needs will be satisfied but to find strength and respite; not so much to put our needs and desires into words as to open ourselves to possibilities that we have probably never imagined.  We find strength by giving up our attempts to control outcomes and to impose our desires, by concluding, as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but thine be done.”  Paul Knitter, from our reading this morning, discovered that, for him, Christian prayer involved too many words, too little silence.  That’s how he came to learn Buddhist ways of meditation and to discover that without Buddha, he could not be a Christian.  We can all learn to listen in the silence, to attend to the still, small voice.

We all face loss and struggle and suffering, whether we are prosperous or poor, young or old, healthy or otherwise.  Some of us have lost children; some of us had struggled valiantly with the problems our children encounter in their own lives.  Some of us have lost jobs or relationships or good health.  All of us have mourned for loved ones who have died.  All of us can find peace by practicing, by learning to let go, breath in and breath out, savor each day to the full, rejoice in the day we are given.

I promised to talk about mindfulness and about summer.  We have more time in the summer to concentrate on what is beautiful, on life blooming around us, to live each day treasuring whatever may come to us, to practice silence.  Mary Oliver speaks of these days in her poem “Deep Summer:”

The mockingbird

opens his throat

among the thorns

for his own reasons


but doesn't mind

if we pause

to listen

and learn something


for ourselves;

he doesn't stop,

he nods

his gray head


with the frightfully bright eyes,

he flirts

his supple tail,

he says:


listen, if you would listen.

There's no end

to good talk,

to passion songs,


to the melodies

that say

this branch,

this tree is mine,


to the wholesome


of being alive

on a patch


of this green earth

in the deep

pleasures of summer.

What a bird!


Your clocks, he says plainly,

which are always ticking,

do not have to be listened to.

The spirit of his every word.[iii]


This is the day that we are given; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

May it be so, and Amen.



[i] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian, Oxford:  Oneworld, 2009, pp. 152-153.

[ii] “The Death Sentence That Defined My Life,” New York Times Week in Review, Sunday, June 5, 2011, p. 8.

[iii] Mary Oliver, Evidence, Boston:  Beacon Press, 2009, pp. 28-29.