The Burning Service

The Burning Service
UUCP · December 30, 2018

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Opening Words by Amy Bowden Freedman

Our service this morning is an annual tradition…a time of reflection on the year past leading into a ritual space where we let go of some things, and hold onto others.  We call it the burning service, because we send those things we are ready to let go of up in smoke.  Literally.

The New Year offers us this invitation…to turn, to reflect, to start fresh.  This morning, we will accept this gracious invitation.  These are the words of my colleague and friend…

Once more, the earth has turned toward the light of the sun.
As we are bathed in the light of a new day,
So may we greet the dawning of fresh possibility.

Once more, we awaken from our slumber.
As our bodies rise
To meet the challenges and pleasures of living,
So may our hearts and minds open with promise.

Once more, we gather for worship.
As we join our voices in word and song,
So may this assembly bring forth wholeness.

Time for All Ages  Flame Of Learning, Chalice Of Love” by Janeen Grohsmeyer, adapted

As the calendar year comes to a close, we give ourselves the gift of a fresh start.  Truly, we could give ourselves this gift far more often, and perhaps we ought to.  Every day could be a fresh start.  Every breath, if need be.

The art of starting fresh has to do with letting go of what was.  We ask forgiveness of those we have harmed; we forgive those who have harmed us.  Perhaps most importantly, we forgive ourselves.  And we keep on going.

In this safe place of acceptance and love, be brave enough to ask your soul:

What do I need to let go of?

Who do I need to forgive me?

Whom do I need to forgive?

What is the one next thing, the one small choice I can make today,

That will move me forward on my journey toward greater joy,

Deeper peace,

Wider love?

In the silence, let us breathe together, and listen for our souls’ answers.

 Homily  Self Compassion in Letting Go

In life, the only thing that stays the same is that everything is always changing.

Our bodies know this.  We shed almost a million skin cells every day.  Which is kind of gross if you think too hard about it.  But it’s also pretty miraculous.  The largest organ in the human body, the organ that protects us and keeps us intact, is both permeable and ever-changing.

But while our bodies are ever changing, our minds sometimes forget that impermanence is at the heart of existence.  Our hearts as well.  The Buddhists talk about the dangers of attachment.  When we hold on to our memories of the way things were, our expectations of the way things should be, or our dreams of the way things could be, we create suffering within ourselves.  There is always a gap between our memories, expectations and dreams and the way things actually are, here and now, in the present moment.

Attachment is so very human, so very understandable.  But letting go, coming into the present, sinking into and delighting in what is, helps us find joy and clarity and peace.  When we can stop trying to control or grasp, when we can flow and give and take and learn and choose with ease, our lives unfold with beauty and grace.  It’s as simple as breathing…and yet, this skill takes a lifetime to master.

Because it is a difficult skill to master, we must practice it with a great deal of self-compassion.  Kristin Neff has studied the science of self-compassion.  She believes it has three components…self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness.

She writes:

Self-kindness…entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. It recognizes that being imperfect and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so we soothe and nurture ourselves when confronting our pain rather than getting angry when life falls short of our ideals. We clearly acknowledge our problems and shortcomings without judgment, so we can do what’s necessary to help ourselves. We can’t always get what we want. We can’t always be who we want to be. When this reality is denied or resisted, suffering arises in the form of stress, frustration, and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with benevolence, however, we generate positive emotions of kindness and care that help us cope.

How are you at being warm and understanding toward yourself?  This has been a real challenge for me.  Sometimes I call myself a perfectionist in recovery.

But I’ve found it helpful to insist on the same standards for kindness in my thoughts toward myself that I insist on when it comes to communicating with others.  When I begin to go down that road of self-critique, I ask myself, “would I say something like that to a person I love?”  If the answer is no, I can stop saying it to myself.

The ultimate destination of the road of self-critique is self-loathing.  Self-loathing is at the heart of addiction, and narcissism, and a number of other difficult thought patterns.  It is not a place I want to go.  It is not a place I want anyone to go.

Neff’s second component of self-compassion involves reclaiming a sense of common humanity, which frees us from a sense of isolation.  As she puts it:

When we notice something about ourselves we don’t like, we irrationally feel like everyone else is perfect and it’s only me who is inadequate. This isn’t a logical process, but a kind of distorted self-centeredness: focusing on our inadequacies gives us tunnel vision so that we can’t see anything else but our own feeble, worthless self. Similarly, when things go wrong in our external lives, we feel that somehow other people are having an easier time of it, that our own situation is abnormal or unfair. When our experiences are interpreted from the perspective of a separate self, we have trouble remembering the similar experiences of our fellow humans…self-compassion recognizes that life challenges and personal failures are part of being human, an experience we all share. In this way, it helps us to feel less desolate and isolated when we are in pain.

One of my favorite jokes goes like this: “They held a convention for adult children of functional families.  No one came.”  Similarly, if we were to hold a convention for perfect people, no one would be eligible.  This is part of why I’m a Universalist.  If only perfect people get to go to Heaven, it would be an empty and lonely place.

We reclaim our sense of common humanity every week, when we lift up joys and sorrows.  Sorrow and joy come into every life.  We all experience loss, failure, and disappointment.  We all make mistakes.

Being human is hard, but when we remember that it’s hard for everybody, we give ourselves (and one another) a little more grace.  We look around and realize…we are doing this hard thing.  It’s like the moment when my spiritual director, after listening to me whine about how hard it was to balance ministry and parenting small children for the umpteenth time, looked me in the eye and said, “Elizabeth, you keep saying it’s impossible.  But you’ve been doing it, and doing it pretty well, for three years now.”

Lastly, Neff advocates for mindfulness, writing “Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental, receptive mind-state in which thoughts and feelings are observed as they are, without suppressing or denying them. You can’t ignore your pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.”

What is key, here, for me, is the shift from seeing our flaws and our painful feelings as something bad that we need to get rid of or heal from to seeing them as a holy part of ourselves, worthy of love and compassion.  We embrace them.  We experience them fully.

When we do this, any sharp edges begin to soften.  All the parts of our imperfect selves and all the parts of our imperfect lives are welcomed and appreciated, and as we do this, they stop yelling to get our attention.

I’ve seen this work with physical pain.  Sometimes when my joints are aching, before medicating myself, I spend some time meditating, imagining breath and compassion flowing toward each sore spot, saying, “I see you.  I hear you.  I understand that you exist to keep me safe.  I will be more gentle with you, I promise.”  Sometimes, the pain eases.  Sometimes, I still need to get out the Bengay.

I know it works with emotional pain.  When grief comes, if I try to suppress it or ignore it, it gets bigger and louder.  If I let it flow through me, it passes, like a rainstorm.  When I am angry, if I stuff it, I get tense and irritable.  If I ask it what it is there to teach me, because anger is just our spirit’s way of saying that something is wrong, I learn its lesson, and the anger dies down.

Buddhist blogger Bobbi Emel, after hearing a talk by Neff, wrote about her internal barriers to self-compassion, some of which are a result of cultural conditioning.  She articulates those barriers as “4 Mythical Beliefs about Self-Compassion,” and I think they’re worth sharing, in case some of them resonate for you.

  • I’m just indulging myself if I’m self-compassionate.

Emel differentiates between self-indulgence and self-compassion, writing:

Self-compassion involves your health and well-being. Self-indulgence is about getting anything and everything you want without thoughts of well-being.

Self-compassion is about becoming aware of and sitting with your pain. Self-indulgence numbs and denies your pain.

  • I won’t be motivated if I don’t criticize myself.

Emel writes:

Somewhere, deep down, you and I might actually believe that we need that inner critic to keep us motivated in life; that without it, we too easily stray outside the lines.

And it’s also possible that the critic evolved to help keep us safe from harm.

But guess what? We don’t need it anymore. Being compassionate with ourselves allows for a much healthier, kinder motivation.

  • It’s selfish for me to be compassionate toward myself.

Emel writes:

Many people, women especially, are taught to put others ahead of themselves. Self-compassion can seem like the opposite of what you “should” be doing: taking care of others.

But how will beating yourself up help you be kinder to others? The source of our compassion will only be more authentic when we are able to show compassion to ourselves first.

  • Self-compassion is for wimps.

Put on your big girl panties and stop whining!  Man up!  Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!

Our society tends to reward toughing things out more than it does being kind and nurturing to yourself.  But the truth is that the strongest people are also the ones who can buck cultural norms and feel genuine compassion for themselves and their circumstances.

As we head into this time of self-reflection, I invite you to breathe some self-compassion.

Let’s let go of shame.  (Violent exhale.) Let go of self-doubt and self-critique.  Shake off every last internal voice that would try to convince you you’re not worthy of compassion, understanding, and love.

Then, let’s breathe in kindness toward ourselves…and make sure that our self-talk is just as skillful as our communication with others.  Let’s breathe in a sense of solidarity with our fellow flawed and magnificent humans, in this room and beyond.   And take a last breath to remember our human superpower:  while we can’t control much outside of us, we can control our thoughts, and we can choose our responses to life’s challenges.


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