Sunday, November 27, 2011

Turning Toward the Morning

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 27, 2011

I remember discovering this song that we’ve just sung with Ken at a fairly bleak time of my life. It was late fall in Colorado, the golden aspen groves on the mountain slopes were now starkly bare of their leaves, we’d had two feet of snow on Halloween, my marriage was over, my son was struggling, my paycheck barely lasted from month to month, and I was dreading the cold Rocky Mountain winter ahead.

One of my great pleasures in life then was attending the monthly acoustic music jams of the Denver Friends of Folk Music. And one Saturday night, a fellow folkie requested this song, and its words resonated with me and my anxious mood.

I was curious to know where the song came from. I was familiar with the New England composer Gordon Bok’s work and looked for something from Gordon Bok about why he wrote the song “Turning Toward the Morning”. Here’s what I found.

"One of the things that provoked this song was a letter last November from a friend who had had a very difficult year and was looking for the courage to keep on plowing into it. Those times, you lift your eyes unto the hills, as they say, but the hills of … November can be about as much comfort as a cold crowbar.

You have to look ahead a bit, then, and realize that all the hills and trees and flowers will still be there come Spring, usually more permanent than your troubles. And if your courage occasionally fails, that's okay, too: nobody expects you to be as strong (or as old) as the land." - Gordon Bok

I liked that idea, of not dwelling too much on the bleakness of today’s troubles and deliberately looking ahead to the brighter days of spring.

But I also liked another, less obvious, theme within this song and that was the idea that this man took his friend Joanie’s sorrow seriously and gave her the one gift he felt he had to give: a song that reminded her that he cared about her sorrow and, with his music, might help her lift her sight from the icy mud of her surroundings and offer her courage and support by pointing to the simple fact that the world is always turning toward the morning.

Late fall can be a hard time of year, as the days grow shorter and shorter, sunny days are few and far between, and the darkness consumes more and more of our waking hours. It’s cold and often rainy and windy; we worry when the power goes out, unsure of how long it will be out and whether we will be able to stay warm. And the season seems to grind on and on. Often the upcoming holidays just add to our anxiety and gloom.

Spring seems very far away in November. The holidays can distract us, but we need more than distraction sometimes. We need people and places we can depend on. We need to find the truths about the world that sustain us, give us hope, give us reason to keep pushing on, even when life’s troubles have overcome us and we see no easy way out.

Sometimes the only way out is through and November is like that.

I was grateful to Judy when she suggested friendship as a theme for this service which signifies the beginning of a season of waiting for the light, of celebrating, in various faith traditions, the hope inherent in the change of seasons at the winter solstice, the sustaining grace of a menorah that never goes dim, the sweet joy of a child’s birth, all occasions of growing light and diminishing darkness.

These relics of ancient legend and history represent the truth of light and warmth and survival, of the mystical and the pragmatic, of the life process that includes both birth and death, both darkness and bright splendor.

Remember that old camp song “Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold”? Or Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”. All these songs speak of the faithfulness and kindness of friends, the human need for friendship and connection with companions, the need for friends to see us through tough times.

I used to be kind of wary of making friends, never quite sure I could count on them. Even best friends have a way of occasionally letting us down or hurting us. Sometimes we learn that a person we thought of as a friend really doesn’t like us very much or inexplicably disappears from our lives.

Sometimes there are exclusions that deliver a message---you’re not our kind of people, so we’re not inviting you to the party, to our church, to our inner circle. Ouch! I suspect we’ve all had a few moments like these. And some of them we brush off because they’re not important; others make us feel rejected at a deep level, make us wonder if we are worthy of friendship.

I was talking with a person recently about an experience she’d had in which she felt excluded---possibly unintentionally, but….she wasn’t sure. And it stirred up old feelings for her, of times when she’d felt similarly excluded or watched others being excluded. Even though she was long past those experiences, the reminders stung.

What are our experiences with friendship? Where do we find our closest friends and comrades?

How many of us here still have some contact with friends from our early days, maybe even elementary school? How long have you known your longest-term friend? (?????)

Why do we maintain contact with some of our earliest friends? What keeps us coming back to them?

Judy and I talked a bit about the common characteristics of our favorite friendships: there’s a comradeship, a sense of being able to be ourselves with a person; we have actual conversations, not just gossip or monologues; it’s nice to have somebody to float an idea by, a person who will understand, critique maybe, but not censure. With the very best of friends, we felt we were able to think at a higher level, especially with someone who could listen as well as converse.

I’ve noticed that shared loss can create a bond. Long years ago, one of my best high school friends, Audrea Montee, died of liver cancer. Audrea and I had palled around all during grade school and high school; she was a crackerjack softball player, smacking that ball way out into left field and then trotting leisurely around the bases as fielders scrambled after the ball which was often lost in the weeds of the far outskirts of the diamond. Audrea was pretty chubby, which slowed her down a bit as she rounded the bases, but she was the home run queen of our class.

She and I were friends partly because we were both kind of teenage misfits, me because I was a preacher’s kid and a brainiac and she because she was quite heavy and had to wear matronly clothes, instead of the popular Pendleton reversible skirts that were a hot item in high school. I didn’t have such a skirt either, so we had that in common, but mainly we just liked each other. She was funny and smart and shrugged off the teasing she got because of her weight; I learned how to do that from her.

When she died at about age 50, a consciousness of mortality seemed to hit some of us McEwen High School grads hard. Out of our tiny graduating class of 20 or so, eight had died young, some in farm accidents or car wrecks, some by cancer or other disease. And so it became important to us who still lived to find each other and hang on.

When I moved back to the PNW in 1999, we started getting together, sometimes in Athena, sometimes at each others’ homes. And a core group of six women formed that has become one of the most important friendship groups I’ve ever experienced.

The interesting thing is that we weren’t close friends in high school, though we knew each other well. All of the other women in the group were part of a different crowd. They could date and go to the movies or go dancing; they had boyfriends and were cheerleaders. I didn’t and I wasn’t. My social life consisted of Baptist Youth Fellowship and other church activities. My school achievements were Honor Roll and Student Body treasurer. Not the stuff of high school dreams!

But in our later years, when we were all in our fifties, we needed each other because our world was changing. No matter where we lived, what our careers meant to us, whatever our different circumstances had been in high school, the people who had been part of our lives for such a long time were dying.

We couldn’t keep that from happening, but we could forge bonds of friendship that honored our long association and the common memories of growing up together in our small community.

Not long after Audrea’s death, another friend, Donna Myers, died suddenly of a massive heart attack. And what had been just a vague idea in our minds became a project. Donna’s grandson, Riley, was in Doernbecher Children’s hospital in Portland with leukemia and the family had no health insurance. Could we help Donna’s family?

Somebody discovered that a softball tournament in Pendleton was being organized as a fundraiser. Maybe we could participate! How long had it been since any of us played softball? How good would we be without our slugger, Audrea? It didn’t matter.

So on a chilly November Saturday almost ten years ago, “Donna’s Team” formed and played the crummiest softball you ever saw. But luckily, it was one of those jokester games where all you had to do was pay off the umpire and get a re-do on your strike-out or your being tagged at home plate. We played with toy bats and hollow plastic softballs. We actually won one game, thanks to my son Mike’s willingness to play and be one of the goofier, more entertaining players on the field.

I still have my Donna’s team t-shirt and hat, mementos of a time when friends fought back the dark for a little boy whose Grandma had been one of us.

We need each other, sometimes, to fight back the dark. Sometimes friends come to our aid when we have an emergency; they take us in when the power goes out; they cover for us when we are ill. They buck us up by listening understandingly (or just by listening, whether they understand us or not!), even if they can’t do a thing to help.

We receive countless gifts from our friends, intangibles we can hardly name. And what do we give, what can we give, in return for this kindness and support?

The thing is, friends give their presence and their aid without any expectation of return. It’s not a you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, much of the time. It’s somebody stepping in when there are few other alternatives; it’s somebody seeing our need when we are reluctant to admit our neediness.

It’s not, usually, a “calling in of a chip” as we hear in the gangster movies on TV. “He owes me a favor” seems more like a business deal than an act of friendship, though I imagine sometimes that’s what we need.

What have been some of the gifts you’ve received this past Thanksgiving week? This national holiday has become a time to express our gratitude for blessings received. Because of the economic crisis in our country, our blessings may have morphed from material things to generosity measured in a different way.

What are the gifts you have received recently from others? Let’s take a moment to reflect and then share some of those gifts. (think, share)

The generosity of both friends and strangers, plus our family members, is a sweet thing to consider. These gifts of time and energy fill our hearts and give us strength for the cold days ahead.

But gratitude is a two way street. We receive gratefully from others, cherishing the thought and the generosity that those gifts of spirit entail. And we also give those gifts to others, grateful for the opportunity to be a giver of gifts of spirit.

You and I have doubtless encountered many people who give only so they can receive something in return. There’s something uncomfortable about being either the giver or receiver with a person like that. The best gifts are given with no expectation of return; the best gifts are received with no expectation of payback. These are gifts of the spirit.

What are the spiritual gifts you have to give to others? Let’s take a moment to reflect, once again, and then share some of those thoughts. (think, share)

The gifts of the spirit are numerous and have often been incorporated as pillars of some of the world’s great religions. They are universal values and we all have them to impart and to receive.

Here’s what I think, after considering how we might both give and receive the gifts of the spirit. I’ve selected seven from the long lists available out there on St. Google.

One of them is wisdom. We seek wisdom from others and we are able to offer our own wisdom to those who seek it from us. Wisdom is the result of our own life experiences and can be both general and specific.

Another is understanding. We strive to understand another’s life circumstances and to extend that understanding to those we meet. When someone really understands us and we know it, that gift is priceless.

How about the ability to make good decisions? This comes from conscience, the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. We support others who make good decisions, who choose for the right instead of the wrong; and we receive from those who make right decisions, because we are better able to choose right behavior ourselves because of them.

Then there’s courage, revealed in the strength of character that develops when we don’t back away from situations that scare us, when we accompany a friend on a journey through terminal illness, when we encourage another to do the hard, fearsome thing because it’s right.

Knowledge is another gift. Our knowledge of the universe and of a life of integrity offer us a way to find meaning in life despite its apparent randomness. We can share knowledge when appropriate and we can receive knowledge gracefully, even when it contradicts a fondly held belief.

Wonder and awe are a gift that is sometimes lacking in us worldly adults. We often let go of our ability to stand struck with awe at the beauty of the universe and of the human creation; children give us back this gift, many times over. But this is a gift we can give ourselves, as well as others, if we just take the time.

Reverence is the final gift on my list. Our desire for rationality and empirical experience sometimes makes it hard to be reverent in the face of our knowledge of good and evil, especially when evil seems so much more in evidence than good. But reverence has the ability to infuse daily life with deeper meaning, like water on a withered plant.

Gordon Bok sings his gift of spirit to his friend Joanie, “oh, my Joanie, don’t you know that the stars are swinging slow, and the seas are rolling easy, as they did so long ago, if I had a thing to give you, I would tell you one more time, that the world is always turning toward the morning.”

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we have gifts of the spirit to offer to each other and spiritual gifts to receive as well. May we reflect upon the gifts we have to give; may we receive gratefully the gifts that others hold out; and may we hold fast to the truth, that the world, both literally and metaphorically, is always turning toward the morning. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


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Tina T-P said...

Hey Kit - That is truly one of my most favorite songs.

Nice sermon too - sometimes I feel like I have more friends in the "blogoverse" than in my own home town -

Things are pretty crazy here - (I'm sure you'll hear about it.) I know it will be hard, but it is so wise of you to move away at the end of your term there. Wish that you had time to do one last service for us before you leave.


ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Tina, it is probably hard on all of you in Blaine, and I can only imagine how hard it must be for Nan. It does feel like a good decision, to move away from the island. Best wishes for you all.

kimc said...

If you would like to know more about why "he owes me a favor" feels more like a business deal than friendship, read what Doug Muder wrote last week on the Weekly Sift; Forgive Us Our Debts;