“Embodiment”

Worship Script 1


Embodiment
Worship Script (1 of 4)

 

OPENING WORDS

Let us gather this morning

As those who have lived a long while

In these precious vessels, our bodies;

Let us gather as those whose bodies

Have borne children, strived with effort,

Been tender with others,

And have breathed all the while,

Let us gather into the larger body now

Of people of good-will and kind hearts

Drawing breath together,

In this time, in this space,

In our worship together.

 

HYMN #123 Spirit of Life

 

 FIRST READING From “The Body Electric” by Walt Whitman

The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred,
No matter who it is, it is sacred—is it the meanest one in the
         laborers’ gang?
Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?
Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off, just as
         much as you,
Each has his or her place in the procession.

 

 SECOND READING  
From “Homage to My Hips” by Lucille Clifton

they don’t fit into little
pretty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.

 

HYMN #23 Bring May Names

 

STORY FOR ALL AGES

The Tigers and the Strawberry

There was a man walking across an open field, when suddenly a tiger appeared and began to give chase.The man began to run, but the tiger was closing in.As he approached a cliff at the edge of the field, the man grabbed a vine and jumped over the cliff.Holding on as tight as he could, he looked up and saw the angry tiger prowling out of range ten feet above him.He looked down.In the gully below, there were two tigers also angry and prowling.He had to wait it out.He looked up again and saw that two mice, one white, the other black, had come out of the bushes and had begun gnawing on the vine, his lifeline.As they chewed the vine thinner and thinner, he knew that he could break at any time.Then, he saw a single strawberry growing just an arms length away.Holding the vine with one hand, he reached out, picked the strawberry, and put it in his mouth. It was delicious.

 

 MEDITATION

Spirit of Life,

Source of All,

Who is in every breath,

Let us awaken to all of your gifts:

The gifts of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste,

All the gifts we know through the gift of our bodies

Help us celebrate the beauty and strength

Of all bodies

Help us preserve those conditions

Which honor those bodies

And help us create a wider body

Of love, in this world,

That nurtures and nourishes

Every last life

Amen.

Blessed Be.

 

CANDLES OF JOY AND CONCERN

Those who are so moved are now invited to come forward to light a candle, expressing a joy or concern in their lives. As you do, you may briefly share what it is. We ask that people coming forward speak for no more than a sentence or two, and speak from the heart about issues in their lives, rather than political issues, which we can take up at coffee hour or in the parking lot.

 

Sermon

Rise in Body or in Spirit

By William Sinkford, senior minister, First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon

It was never my goal to become an elder. Over the years I have looked at older men, older than I am, and thought: Someday that might be me. I don’t remember those moments as being either frightening or depressing. But I never really inhabited that future. I don’t remember projecting myself into a time when “aging” would be an important part of my living. “Old age” was an inevitable destination, if I lived to deal with it, but it was never a goal. Truth be told, I don’t think I ever took aging seriously or personally. Until recent years.

I remember looking at those older men, noticing their beginning or advancing fragility, the tentativeness in their step, their thinning legs, their etched faces, the age spots. Mostly I noticed the signs of physical aging and, until recently, could conveniently store those images away. I wasn’t dealing with those losses, those reductions in strength and ability. The myth of invincibility that so many comment upon in young men (and young people generally) remained with me until recent years.

I am nearly 70 now—“young” in terms of the popular culture that is so influenced by my Baby Boom generation and the industries that increasingly cater to the large number of those my age. “70 is the new 50.” Yes…and no. There most certainly is life, love and productivity at 70 and well beyond.

But there are changes to deal with, too. Changes to that 18-year-old body that I remember, that trim, graceful body that was mine when I had fantasies of a career as a professional tennis star. Changes to that 35-year-old body that I remember, that well muscled “construction worker” body that was mine when I ran a small business renovating homes and churches. Those body images are not just memory. They still live in me. What I see in the mirror today feels less like me, certainly, than either of those earlier bodies.

For many years, I understood myself to be middle-aged. But I just don’t know that many 140 year olds. So much of popular culture seems to focus on denial of aging rather than embracing its reality. Even to use that phrase, “embracing the reality of aging,” highlights the dilemma. Aging is about decreasing ability, increasing limitation, reduced independence, increased reliance on others. Aging is about accepting approaching death. Why would anyone embrace aging? Isn’t the only sane approach to resist it?

I have lived a lucky life, so far, in many ways. One of the ways I have been most fortunate—blessed, really—is that I have always been able to rely on my body. My tall, strong, male body was a given. It has been the work of a lifetime to understand how privileged that body has made me. I had a few injuries and routine sicknesses over the years, but I always recovered quickly and completely. Nothing happened to me that western medicine could not fix. The myth of invincibility could remain intact.

Then I took a fall exiting a small commuter plane in South Carolina. The bruising was extensive, but I soldiered on. In the next weeks and months, my walking became more and more compromised, and the pain got worse, not better.

Surgery that eliminated the pain followed. But my walking and my balance never returned. The final diagnosis was “neuropathy.” Though there is a fancy medical definition for that term, what it means to me is that the nerves to my feet and lower legs don’t work right.

Exercise and physical therapy, acupuncture and extra vitamins help. But I now wear braces on both legs to correct the “drop” in my feet. I walk slowly and awkwardly, and when I have to stand in one place I need to have a hand on a friendly shoulder or wall. It makes receptions and receiving lines…well, let‘s just say that I don’t enjoy them nearly as much as I once did.

The western medical community tells me, and I have come to accept, that there is no cure. I won’t get better. There is no fix. And, over time, there will be some degradation in my abilities. I hate that thought and fear the time when I may not be able to walk or stand on my own. The thought of using a “walker” is a nightmare for me. A wheelchair, even worse.

At General Assembly, our large annual gathering of the clan, I did begin using a scooter to get around. I simply couldn’t walk fast enough to get from location to location within the timeframes of the conference. The scooter was easy enough to justify while I was still working through diagnosis and treatment options, easy to justify as I was recovering from the surgery. But now, it is just what I need to do.

Accepting my new physical reality has been a test and is still a work in process. I don’t use a scooter at home or at work, or a cane or…anything. Part of the reason is my fear that using an assist of any kind would encourage my congregation to move into “taking care” of me, which would compromise my ability to care for, minister to them. That is a real concern. The rational part of me, which continues to function well (at least as far as I can tell), knows that my congregation sees me walk awkwardly. I have never fallen in public, but they know.

But pride is also involved. And pride can be a dangerous emotion. And there is also the knowledge, or at least the belief, that once I begin using more assistive devices, I’ll never return to life without them. So I refuse to use them.

Worse, using a visible assist would signal to me that “the end is near,” or at least “nearing.” The invincible younger man who never had to think about physical limitations, who could rely on his body to do what he asked it to do, who never had to think about limitations or compromises—that younger man inside me resents these limitations and, when I allow him to, rails against them.

I live with a sense of betrayal. The body that I relied on for so many years is letting me down. I am still mad about it. Furious,actually. How is it possible to be so angry at my own body, at myself?

My mind seems and feels uncompromised by aging, at least thus far. Although there are qualifications even to that statement. My memory, I know, is not as sharp as it once was. I need to make more notes lest I forget things. That doesn’t feel like too much of a compromise.

Yet my spirit seems to deepen by the day.

The spirit is willing, but the body? A quip from the used car business comes to mind: “It’s not the mileage, but the wear and tear on the chassis that matters.”

I am blessed to be doing a ministry that I love. What takes a toll is having to pay attention, almost all the time. It is needing to plan where I can stand. It is calculating how far I can walk. How close can I park to that meeting? How many steps will I have to climb? How long will I have to stand?

My colleagues at the church increasingly understand that I have limitations. They are both gracious and generous in making accommodations without making a big production of it. No one asks me to march in protests. I just show up at the speakers’ platform at the end of the march. We’ve modified our child dedication ritual so that I don’t hold the children. I need a hand on a shoulder to stand and sing the hymns.

At a recent installation where I preached, I decided to take the invitation to “rise in body or spirit” seriously and remained seated. It felt like a watershed moment. Could I give myself permission to acknowledge my limitations that publicly? I found, of course, that the world continued spinning on its axis when I remained seated to sing. It was not a big deal—to anyone other than me.

It felt like another step in accepting  who I am now. A healthy decision, no doubt. The problem is that there will surely be more such decisions required and somehow each one presents the same spiritual test. Each one presents yet another opportunity to accept a new, more limited body. Each one calls up again the sense of betrayal, the anger, and the disappointment.

What I struggle most to accept is not any one sign of the reality of my physical limitations, but the knowledge that dealing with them will be part of my life…for the rest of my life.

Yet one of the positive results of having those questions always on my mind is that I have found a new and much more personal sensitivity to issues of disability generally. I always thought I was mindful of those dynamics and supportive of folks who deal with physical and mental limitations, but those issues have moved way up in my list of priorities. And I am very mindful that my story is one of fuller abilities lost, not the story of living differently-abled for a lifetime or a long time.

I am a minister, so I sometimes try theological reflection to help me deal with my new reality. I believe not that we have bodies, but that we are bodies. I don’t believe that there is some soul separate from the physical embodiment of Bill Sinkford. No essence of Bill separate from the presence of Bill. But it is very seductive to begin thinking of my body only as a container for the real me. It’s inviting to think that, while my body will inevitably deteriorate and finally die, my essence will live on.

There is death not far underneath all of my wrestling with these changes in my body. Not fear of death, really, because, to date, I haven’t experienced fear about my life ending, although perhaps that will come at some point. The challenge is living with the reality that death is the final destination, the end point, at least as we can know for certain. The test is knowing not only that death is inevitable, but that it is right and even good.

Part of ministry, some would say the most important and meaningful part, is being with members of my congregation as they are dying, and sitting with family members and friends as they deal with the loss, the grief, even the anger they experience as loved ones die. In my aging, I find that I am bringing something different with me at those times. Whatever acceptance I gain of my own mortality is a gift I can offer—rarely in words, but in easiness, perhaps even gracefulness, grace-filledness, that I hope communicates and, somehow, consoles.

Being present to my self as I age is a primary spiritual discipline for me, as I study and learn from the stories and examples of so many men and women who have moved through this phase of life. The aging process feels huge; it seems important to do it well. And it feels like it will require all the honesty and as much courage as I can muster to navigate it with grace—even when I stumble.

Adapted from a piece published in Landscapes of Aging, edited by Kay Montgomery and published by Skinner House Books in2015. Available through InSpirit: UU Book and Gift Shop at www.uuabookstore.org

 

HYMN #12 O Life That Maketh All Things New

 

BENEDICTION
“This Hand in Yours”  by Rev. Erika Hewitt

Invite the congregation to join hands.

The hand in yours belongs to a person
whose heart is sometimes tender,
whose skin is sometimes thin,
whose eyes sometimes fill with tears,
and whose laughter is a beautiful sound.

The hand that you hold belongs to a person who is seeking wholeness,
and trusts that you're doing the same.

As you leave this sanctuary,
may your hearts remain open
may your voices stay strong
and may your hands remained outstretched.