August 2, 2020

“Detachment and Adaptation,” Bob Ryder

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant as well as to harvest;
a time to kill as well as to heal;
a time to take things apart as well as a time to put them back together;
there’s a time to cry just as there’s a time to laugh;
there’s a time to grieve just as there’s a time to rejoice;
there’s a time to scatter bricks, just as there’s a time to lay them in place;
there’s a time to embrace, as well as a time to abstain from embracing;
there’s a time to call off the search, as well as a time to begin looking;
there’s a time to give belongings away, just as there’s a time to collect what we need;
there’s a time to tear things apart, just as there’s a time to sew them together;
there’s a time to keep silence as well as a time to speak;
there’s a time to hate as well as a time to love;
there’s a time for war, and there’s a time for peace.

“The only constant in life is change.” Heraclitus

“Whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, a hater to a hater, a poorly disciplined mind inflicts on itself the greater harm.” – Siddhartha Gautama; the Buddha

Take a moment and call to mind something in your life that seems indispensable; something about which you might say, “If I don’t have access to that, I can’t be alright – I won’t make it without that person / place / thing / experience in my life.” What resource or relationship seems like life or death for you? Take a quiet moment and see who or what comes to mind.

Now see if you can think of something or someone that has actually come and gone from your life and once seemed indispensable, yet you still ended up surviving and thriving after they were gone. Who or what have you known and said goodbye to, and ended up being okay? Notice, by the way, that carrying on after the loss doesn’t mean there wasn’t beauty and love and value there – of course there was. Nor does it mean there isn’t grief, maybe there still is. Yet we can acknowledge that we did carry on and found life can still be worthwhile after someone or something important has moved on. We grieve, we heal, we live – there’s a time for everything in life.

Such is the wisdom in the Buddhist concept of impermanence.  It’s as simple as it is profound – time passes and things change. We’re born, we grow, we laugh and cry, we prosper and struggle, we age, we die – earth the earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  We acquire and relinquish. Possessions accumulate and disperse. Relationships begin and end. Continents drift. Evolution proceeds. Oceans rise and empires fall. Asteroids crash. Stars ignite and extinguish. Galaxies recede beyond view as dark energy accelerates the expansion of the universe beyond the speed of light. Things change and we say hello. Things change and we say goodbye. Things change and we say hello again.

We’ve thought about impermanence before. It’s healthy and necessary to remind ourselves that things change whether or not we want them to. Sometimes we can delay changes or hurry them along, sometimes not. Sometimes we can influence how something will change – coaxing circumstances to turn in our favor, but not always. So it’s good to acknowledge that whatever is happening – whatever we’re comfortable whatever we’re resigned to – it isn’t forever and it’s mostly outside of our control. As the old Persian proverb says, “This too shall pass.”

When we can acknowledge that obvious reality – when we really get it – a certain skill becomes possible. Realizing the truth of impermanence, we can begin to cultivate our own well-being without depending on access to something outside ourselves that will certainly change sooner or later. This capacity is known as non-attachment, or the discipline of taking responsibility for one’s own needs. It’s important we understand what non-attachment isn’t as well as understanding what it is. Non-attachment isn’t the same as being aloof or disinterested; it’s not “rugged individualism.” Buddhism is a tradition of compassion and empathy, and it would be pretty hollow if it promoted being emotionally distant and disconnected from others. Non-attachment isn’t about being uninvolved. It’s just that being involved means something different than being dependent, addicted, attached. To say I want to have something or someone in my life, or to say that I want to share my life with other people or causes doesn’t have to mean we rely on them instead of our own agency. It doesn’t mean our involvement defines us. Things change. To say, “I want to share my life with you.” doesn’t mean, “I can’t live without you.”

When I answered that opening question for myself – the one in which you were invited to recall something that once seemed absolutely necessary for happiness and survival – I remembered my first serious romantic relationship. Maybe some of you did, too. There were good and joyful aspects of that relationship well worth our time and energy, but I was young and my character and self-esteem weren’t very mature yet, and I became dependent on my girlfriend for things I ought to have cultivated for myself. When the relationship ended, I was devastated. My behavior was unattractive, my attitude pathetic, and for a while it was hard to know I would ever be “okay” again. Of course, I would be. And part of the painful but necessary learning curve was that I needed to build some self-reliance I hadn’t realized was missing. There was a time for those things – a time to grieve and a time to heal.

To be detached can mean to be self-reliant, resilient, resourceful without becoming isolated. When we bring those mature qualities to a relationship, it doesn’t mean we love less. To the contrary, we can love the better for not putting unrealistic expectations on others in our lives whether they’re friends, neighbors, spouses, business partners, pastors, politicians, moms and dads, daughters and sons. When we take responsibility for our own needs and resist making others responsible for our happiness and comfort, we can give and receive the joys and sorrow of living generously and graciously. We can build mutuality without manipulation or coercion. Time passes, things change. We share the beauty and danger of our existence freely without becoming dependent on the transient nature things in time and space.

Well, the subject is particularly relevant this week because we’re all processing the news that Susan and I will retire at the end of the year. After 23 years, one can be forgiven for assuming we’d always be here. So, it’s worth acknowledging the obvious – things change for congregations just as for individuals and families and communities. Time passes, things change, and we can move into the future with the knowledge that our well-being doesn’t depend on Susan and I being here indefinitely.

It was quite an experience sharing the news. It was challenging and difficult. There were tears. There was some anger and frustration. There were congratulations. There were worries about whether the congregation can survive without us. All of that is valid and understandable, and we hope you know we take no pleasure in causing sadness or worry about the future of NCC. In a way, it’s flattering to be told you’re indispensable; that an institution won’t be able to continue without you. It feels wonderful to be appreciated and to be told you’ll be missed.  I’m glad to think what Susan and I have offered during our time with NCC has done some good.

At the same time, please know we’re certain this congregation has the potential for a bright a future. We’re not in debt. We have a worthy faith perspective. We have financial resources to draw on, and we have people who are creative and intelligent and involved and audacious and loving. Certainly there are challenges – organizing to find new leaders, figuring how to be welcoming in the digital age, navigating the quarantine, discerning what priorities to take on in the years to come. Those challenges will take some effort and some wisdom, but they’d be challenging no matter who the pastor is, and in my experience – far from being existential threats – those are the sort of issues likely to bring out the best in this congregation. Time passes and things change, and however comfortable and appreciative this congregation has been with our leadership, NCC has never been in a position of not being able to survive without us. So over the next several months, we’ll all cultivate the resilience and flexibility to grieve and heal and thrive again that comes with knowing for everything there’s a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.