These last few weeks, our worship theme of the Four Elements has been all too real and alive out in the world. We’ve been saturated with images of fire, earth, wind, water reminding us that we are not in control of the Earth; though our lifestyles - collectively - exert incredible influence over the magnitude of the earth’s rhythms and rolls.
Locally, we experienced the fires just over the hill in La Tuna Canyon and Burbank, impacting several of our Throop families.We watched and worried about the effects of the recent earthquake in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Mexico City.
And of course, the hurricanes.
I think we’ll wait a long while before having the Four Elementsas a worship theme again. I was a little worried about what might happen this week, as we moved into “Wind.”
Last week, the news coverage of Hurricane Irma dominated our screens. We followed along with the mapsas its path was predicted, and then re-calculated as it changed. We wondered, which Florida coast would it hit, east or west?
We watched as people battened down the hatches, we checked in with friends and loved ones, we held our breath as they got on airplanes or on the freeway, and headed to hopeful safety.
We followed the preparations of those who left, and we also heard reports about those who stayed behind.
Some of those who “stayed in place” were people who weren’t allowed to leave, like government workers, who are mandated to stay and keep city and other services up and running.
And some of those who stayeddidn’t have the financial means to leave, who just didn’t have the money for gas or hotels, who didn’t have family ready to welcome them.
But as the news covered those who stayed, even when they had the ability to leave, And when some of my own friends and colleagues resolved to face the fury of the storm,I found myself intrigued with their decision. I wondered, what are they doing there?
As people posted pictures of themselves on Facebook, boarding up their windows against the winds, stockpiling food and water, creating a strong fort against the storm, it reminded me of the story of Elijah in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Not the sweet, old uncle Elijah for whom we leave a seat and a glass of wine during Passover Seder.
But Elijah as the young prophet, refereeing a showdown between the God of Israel and the false god Baal and his 450 prophets, a battle in which Elijah turned to both Fire and Water to prove the might of Israel’s God.
After this intense fight in which the God of Israel - and Elijah - win, Elijah becomes fearful of the retribution of the other side. He becomes so scared, that Elijah flees across the countryside and finds a cave to hide out in, hoping to ride out the storm of their anger.
Have you ever been deep inside a cave?
It’s dark. Often wet and dank. A bit cold.
All alone in a cave, sounds are amplified. Even the softest of sounds bounce off the walls.
As Elijah sits there, perhaps pondering all that has happened in his life, perhaps wondering how it is that nowhe finds himself all alone in a cave, far away from all that he knows and loves, he hears a voice, asking him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And perhaps that is just what Elijah needed to open himself up to all the turmoil he carries, all the stress and anxiety. Elijah responds to that question with a litany of all that has gone wrong with his life plan. All of the things that he fears. You can imagine the sound of his emotional pain echoing around the cave, in the darkness, his words eventually coming around and enveloping him.
Once Elijah has wept and screamed until he is entirely spent, he hears the voice once more. He believes it to be the voice of his God.
When he hears it, the voice tells him, Go, stand outside of the cave. Slowly, Elijah rises, and makes his way to the mouth of the cave, hoping that once there he might feel God’s presence and understand what to do next. Suddenly, while Elijah is standing there, a great, strong wind whips around the mountains, breaking off pieces of rock and tree limbswhich come crashing down around him. But in the wind, Elijah did not hear the voice of his god. Then, just as suddenly as the wind, an earthquake shook the mountain up and down, rumbling and grumbling, sending more rocks and limbs crashing to the ground.
But in the earth, Elijah did not hear the voice of his god. Then, just as suddenly as the wind and earth had moved, came a blazing fire, popping and crackling, sweeping across the rocks and brush outside the cave. But in the fire, Elijah did not hear the voice of his god. And then, just as swiftly as the great energy of the wind and earth and fire had begun, all was quiet. There was just Elijah, alone, standing in front of the mouth of the cave. And there, in the calm, Elijah heard the still, small voice of his god. Just a whisper. Just a breath. Asking him: What are you doing here? Hopefully, none of you will find yourself facing a hurricane or other natural disaster with reporters asking you, what are you doing here. At times, some of you may find yourselves in a moment where you hear the voice of your own God asking you, what are you doing here. But my guess is that every single one of usfinds ourself somewhere, at some time, asking that very question, what am I doing here? In the midst of an argument with a beloved. Stuck in traffic on the 210 freeway at 5:30 in the afternoon. Walking into a job whose purpose has waned. Maybe, sometimes even within the walls of this church. You find yourselves adrift, alone, akimbo, all out of sorts. And you feel that question rising up, what am I doing here? I don’t know about you, but that feeling has washed over me much more often since last November.
I feel more easily stressed, anxious, and short with people. I find I need more “recovery time” if you will, time to savor the beauty that is within my reach. And yet the needs of our world, the pressure for our liberal values to be heard in the streets and in the civic square, feels more urgent than ever. I’m reminded by that phrase by E.B. White: I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. Or, in some of our Throop language, How will you choose to love the world today? That may be a question that Elijah wrestled with, too, in his own way. After his initial, high intensity quest, the cave offered him space and time to re-evaluate what was important to him.
He was in a place quiet enoughand slow enough that he could begin to discern what was next for him. How could his values and beliefs best be lived out? Liturgically, each year the month of September at Throop is a month of new beginnings. Our Water Communion ritual offers you a chance to renew your spiritual connection with water. We celebrate the coming of fall, and next week we honor the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, inviting you to return again to the home of your soul. In the midst of this season of renewal, we are soon coming up on the one year marker of when the federal administration shifted, and began making policy decisions that many of us feel are out of alignment with our Unitarian Universalist value of affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Some of the things we feared in November, and that we spoke out against, have come to pass. We haven’t been quiet. We marched in the streets, we wrote dozens of letters, we put our legislators on quick dial. We hosted forums with elected leadersand held city election debates. This church raised a banner proclaiming that all are welcome here. And I’m proud of you, proud of us, for our commitment to improve the world. We won’t stop doing that. But on this Sunday, I ask you to do everything you can to enjoy this world of ours, too. Because we know that no matter who holds national office, or state, or local, that we live in an imperfect world always in need of our hands turned toward the common good (reference to reading used earlier, written by Rev. Kathleen McTigue).
It is a lifetime pursuit, and we will never finish it. And we may at times feel tired, but I hope we can always come back to a sense of hope and purpose. For my friends and colleagues who stayed in place during Hurricane Irma, they stayed in part because of a sense of hope and determination that they would be poised to rebuild what was lost. I ask you to give yourself over fully to this month of new beginnings, of renewal, because our hearts and spirits must be tended to. And that when you hear that voice in you, asking, “What are you doing here?” That you stop. Remember who you are, and all that you love, and all who love you, and use that moment to re-center yourself in the beauty that is indeed all around us. Because we cannot forget that, or else, we have lost.
I end with a poem by Rilke. You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathingthat is more than your own. Let it brush your cheeksas it divides and rejoins behind you. Blessed ones, whole ones,you where the heart begins: You are the bow that shoots the arrowsand you are the target. Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall backinto the earth; for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas. The trees you planted in childhood have growntoo heavy. You cannot bring them along. Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.
by Rainer Maria Rilke trans. by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy