“Bells in the cold tower, after the long snowing, come months of growing.”
An uplifting message sung to a gloomy tune. The landscape and thermometer declare it winter. What season are you in – in your own life? What season are we all in?
Earth-based religions and literature celebrate spring as the season of new life, of discovery, excitement, joy, first love.
A hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
The green corn-field in the spring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.[i]
Then comes summer. In myth, the hero accomplishes his quest, lovers attain bliss, we hear of paradise. It is a time of flowering and fullness, enjoyment, ripening, romance, fulfillment.
of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body
accepts what it is.”[ii]
Then there is autumn, a sunset and dying phase. There is melancholy and loss, green turning to brown, ripe to sere.
I stood in the disenchanted field
Amid the stubble and the stones,
Amazed, while a small worm lisped to me
The song of my marrow-bones.”
Blue poured into summer blue,
A hawk broke from his cloudless tower,
The roof of the silo blazed, and I knew
That part of my life was over.[iii]
There is a darkness and dissolution phase, the season of winter. Myths tell of the triumph of these evil and satanic powers; of the return of chaos, of defeat. It is the season of the ogre and the witch.[iv]
… Snow skurries
In the coiling wind. The wineglass
Is spilled. The bottle is empty
The fire gone out in the stove.
Everywhere men speak in whispers.
I brood on the uselessness of letters.[v]
What season are you in?
A quick answer might be based on how old you are. My own family spans the seasons.
Today is my older sister Betsy’s 65th birthday. On the card I sent there’s a cartoon newspaper with the headline, “Senior Citizen Has Great Idea. Loses Train of Thought.” Inside I wished her happy birthday and told her Booker and I were right behind her.
Parts of our lives, parts of my life, are over. The part raising children, the part where I kept changing jobs and careers. The part when my body did more or less what I wanted it to do, without balking, or getting tired or sore. The part where I imagined I had control over what came next. I’m sure there are more surprises coming my way.
My mother is in winter. “The uselessness of letters” feels especially poignant to me. A retired professor and life-long teacher, she is less and less able to follow a conversation, or read, or care for herself.
Between Christmas and New Year’s our son Daniel and his family were with us. If you were at the 4PM service on Christmas Eve you saw me ask Dan to take Kaleb, who is almost two, out. In his many adorable moments one of Kaleb’s favorite words is “wow,” but sometimes he just likes to yell.
The girls still love crayons and markers. I printed out many ready-to-color sheets of princesses and odd dessert-shaped characters called, appallingly, “Shopkins.” We all played board games. When they got back home my daughter-in-law went out to buy Sequence, and Risk. I’m glad they get off their screens some evenings, to play board games together.
They are a young family - spring and summer both. Birth, revival, creation, fathers and mothers, romance, hope, dreams of the future.
And all the stresses and worries and ordinary moments of life.
Age only partially shapes the season we’re in. No time of life is ever all singing birds, or whispering worms, or useless words, or mouths stuffed with fruit. Every season contains moments of the other three.
New ideas and possibilities open in all seasons. Loss and despair overtake us in all seasons. We have times of flowering and times we feel frozen in place. This is a time of year for taking stock. What season or seasons are you in?
And what season is the country in? Outside it’s winter. Are we, as a nation, in a time of dissolution, a time for cynicism and the triumph of chaos? In the season of ogre?
It does feel cold. And the ogre is not figurative.
Saying that merits a small digression about what I, as a clergy person speaking from this pulpit and we, as a religious organization, are permitted to do and say about politics.
As a religious organization we are exempt from taxation – we don’t pay property, sales, or state and federal income taxes. To maintain our tax-exempt status, we need to operate within certain parameters.
We are not permitted to engage in partisan politics. That means that, during an election, we may not take a position in favor of one candidate over another. We cannot endorse a particular political party.
There is only one case on record in which the IRS revoked a church’s tax-exempt status. The Pew Trust Guide “Preaching Politics from the Pulpit” says:
Four days before the 1992 election, an upstate New York church took out a newspaper ad with the heading “Christians Beware: Do not put the economy ahead of the Ten Commandments.” The ad cited biblical passages and stated that Gov. Bill Clinton supported abortion on demand, homosexuality and the distribution of condoms … in public schools. It concluded: “How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?” At the bottom, in fine print, it read: “This advertisement was co-sponsored by The Church at Pierce Creek. Tax-deductible donations for this advertisement gladly accepted.”
We won’t do something like that. But we have the right to speak about the issues that matter to us, and to oppose policies and actions that violate our values and principles.
And we can lobby for specific causes and specific pieces of legislation, as long as lobbying activities are an “insubstantial” part of our total activities. Older court cases suggest that “insubstantial” is something between five and 15 percent of the organization’s total activities (as measured in time spent or dollars devoted directly to lobbying.) In our current budget year, 5% would be about $17,000. That’s a lot of stamps.[vi]
End of digression. It is winter, the season of the ogre. It is going to be a long one. What is the sane and sensible response?
The issues can seem overwhelming: Immigration, civil rights, foreign policy, rollbacks of environmental protections and a headlong plunge into aggressive exploitation of fossil fuel reserves. And problems we see around us: addiction, domestic abuse, homelessness. And longer term structural issues: our electoral system, economic disparity, the racism entrenched in our systems and psyches.
We cannot afford despair. We can’t join toad under the covers in bed. At least not for long stretches of time. And most of us also cannot go speeding down the hill, especially alone, seven days a week. We will do what we can. We’ll take into account where we are in our own lives.
And, I know many of us are doing this – taking stock, assessing and reassessing priorities – how we spend our time and our money.
You have probably been following the news about the President-elect’s choices for cabinet positions. His proposed leaders for the EPA, Department of Energy and Department of the Interior are climate change deniers who have opposed limitations on, or actively promoted, the fossil fuel industries. His pick for Attorney General, Alabama Senator Jeffery Sessions, has taken consistently oppositional stances on the civil rights of people of color and the LGBT community.
Some will respond by demonstrating. Some of you are heading to Washington or Boston on January 20. Tomorrow, as part of a national effort by 350.org, members of our Climate Action Group are participating in a “stand-out” on the Calvin Coolidge Bridge in Northampton from 4 to 5 pm. Everyone is welcome to join them.
Bill Diamond posted a news article on our Facebook page about the arrest of leaders of the Alabama NAACP, who staged an occupation protest in Senator Sessions’ state headquarters. At the top of the post he asked, “What can we do, here?”
On this one, we can lobby. I am confident that our two senators will oppose the Sessions nomination. I don’t know how they will stand on the other proposed nominees. An organized email, letter writing and phone campaign would seem to be in order, over the next few weeks. Especially reaching out to friends and family in other states, whose senators might need help being persuaded to oppose some of the President’s choices.
Six weeks from now, one way or another, Trump will have a cabinet.
And it will still be winter.
We will need to stay warm. We’ll need to get fired up some of the time, and to rest and reflect at other times. We will need to engage in meaningful ways, joining with others here in the valley, with other UU congregations, with local and national organizations. We will need to keep learning. None of what we face is new. But we have been given a wake-up call. And we need to be in for the duration.
I believe that this congregation can be at the forefront of faith in action in this community. I don’t know exactly what that will look like, in the months and years ahead. As I said, I’ve mostly given up thinking that I can control what comes next. But I think we are in a season for taking some risks.
I would like to see us think big and do more. And I believe that we can. Members of the Board believe we can. Members of the stewardship committee, and some of the rest of you, believe we can – that we can do more and give more.
The believers are saying that we need to raise substantially more money, and use those resources to help realize the vision we’ll all help create. You can read the stewardship committee’s article in the January Pioneer. You’ll hear much more, in the coming weeks and months. And you can start asking yourself what it would look like, for this congregation to be at the forefront of faith in action, here in the middle of our valley. What would we need to make that happen?
I would love to see us with another ministerial set of hands, someone with energy, and ideas, and a passion for social justice, to give us person-power where we need it. I would love to see us be able to devote every plate collection to a local organization working for change.
I would love for us to emulate our own amazing climate action group in other areas – developing and maintaining strong, solid ties and lines of communication with other organizations and groups who share our passions and values.
I would love to see us find more ways to help our members connect and serve in large ways and smaller ones.
I would love to see us effectively responding to crises of the moment and long term issues
And do an even better job welcoming and including newcomers, families, and younger adults, creating paths for leadership within the congregation.
And of course continue to worship together, nurture our children, support and encourage one another in our spiritual longings and needs – in seasons of sorrow and seasons of joy.
We began the service with words from from the South African poet and singer Mzwakhe Mbuli. He said
Now is the time,
To climb up the mountain
And reason against habit
Now is the time
To renew the barren soil of nature
Ruined by the winds of tyranny
Now is the time
To commence the litany of hope
Now is the time.
Whatever happens, we are in this together. We will live with winter and work for spring. And we will be here for one another, in whatever season we are in.
[i] Wm. Shakespeare As You Like It, 5.3.15-20
[ii] Mary Oliver, “August” (excerpt)
[iii] Stanley Kunitz, “End of Summer,” (excerpt)
[iv] See Northrop Frye, “The Archetypes of Literature,” The Kenyon Review, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter, 1951), pp. 92-110
[v] Tu Fu (713-770), “Snow Storm,” tr. Kenneth Rexroth