Keep On Opening Your Heart

by the Rev. Jill Cowie


Introduction to the Days of Awe

The Jewish sages tell us that the essence of Rosh Hashanah is the day on which G_d is crowned king of the universe. Unless you are particularly religious G-d may not be a word you use comfortably. Add to that king of the universe, and maybe that’s enough to make some of us squirm. After attending Rosh Hashanah services the last two years, my take is that Rosh Hashanah celebrates with abundant praise all of creation and invites each of us with a sense of awe and reverence to discover our place of belonging, a place of connection and knowing we recognize as the voice of our deepest self. The King of which the liturgy speaks, is this voice of authority in each of us that embodies our deepest striving and aspirations, and the coronation is our devotional pledge of loyalty to that voice.

The Talmud also tells us that on Rosh Hashanah three books are open. The first, is for the completely evil, and the second for the completely righteous. Both of these books are quickly sealed. The third remains open for all those in between for 10 days of praying and the doing of righteous deeds in the hopes that on the day of Yom Kippur when judgment is rendered their names will be added to the book of life for one more year. Observers today consider this a time of inward introspection, of letting go, and asking forgiveness to rediscover the heart space where the human and divine meet. The Days of Awe invites observers to awaken this invisible element in our heart that calls us back into relationship with ourselves and with the fullness of life.

The Sermon

Every year at Rosh Hashanah I think of Kerry, who I had met my first day of chaplaincy training at Brigham and Women’s hospital. I worked the oncology floors and she had arrived at the hospital a day before I met her, and after two full days of tests she was finally back in her room, reunited with her husband. Her advanced cancer had been diagnosed only two weeks prior to this hospital visit and she had arrived in intense pain. She was thirty-two years old, with two daughters, ages five and two. I introduced myself as chaplain and the door to her soul opened. She said “I haven’t had many conversations with God, but that is changing” Voice cracking, she said, “I am going to die, and I don’t know what that means.” She quickly apologized, saying it was the painkillers talking, that she usually doesn’t talk like this.

She started chemo, and was frequently not feeling well enough for a visit but I stopped in one night when she was alone. Without her husband, she let out her anger and her fears, sobbing how unfair it is, and how she doesn’t want her kids to grow up all messed up because their mother died of cancer. She left after sixty-five days at the hospital and returned only five days later, dehydrated and despondent. She told me that at home, the kids had made a green light/red light sign for her door so that she could rest. Her husband said that it was on red most of the time. She was disconnected from her life as mom, as wife, her illness had robbed her of her being. She said, everyone at the hospital is so nice, and started listing the things that the nurses had bought for her. I told her it was she that drew out this kindness, her deep and loving presence. She said “I used to be like that, before I got sick.” I told her again about her kind presence and her whole face lit up, and with renewed strength she said to me, “you are an angel, you are all angels.” Her tension dissolved and she and her husband looked at each other in relief and recognition. The last thing she said to me before I left my summer chaplaincy job was “Every ounce of my strength, every word out of my mouth is for my kids, everything I say, and do is with them in mind, so that I will be with them as long as I can and so they will know that they were held in love.”

I think of Kerry every year at this time, and her first words to me, “I haven’t talked to God much lately” I wonder about the conversations she had with God, the ones that made a difference between red and a green light, the ones that opened her heart wide enough for her be fully present with husband, her kids, to herself and her death. How she found in that place where the divine and human meet the strength to transform her anger, her intense sorrow, her self-blame, into a sense of self that was less about her and more about the love to come, the seeds she could still plant. I tell you about her today because my experience with her always renews my faith in the power of love and the reach of the spirit to heal two people in a committed relationship informed by deep need, affection, and the subjective connection with the most holy.

I let Kerry be my teacher, for truth be told I often stood on the threshold of her door fighting the urge to come back another time, not to intrude, because really how could I help? I was still struggling with unresolved emotions about my own mother’s death of cancer, still carrying guilt for not being with her when she died, still feeling angry she didn’t fight harder to live, and angry she wasn’t around to know my kids. What could I say to this woman, with all my hurt going on? I am embarrassed to say, I turned heel a few times, knowing I would be a lot more comfortable talking to the less sick person next door.

So I started my own conversation with God alone in my bunkroom during my over nights at the hospital. I prayed for the presence to transform all the stuff that turns my red light on and shuts down that human/divine place of knowing within me. And with time, somehow I was able to reflect Kerry’s loving kindness back to her, the part of her self she had forgotten, the part that invited the same loving kindness in me. Together we reclaimed the promise of creation by mirroring for each other with affection the giftedness of life, that grounded us with a sense of belonging despite the overwhelming sadness.

The gift of belonging is the first covenant in the Hebrew Bible made by God to A-dam, which in Hebrew means “all earthlings.” This universal covenant is central to the celebration of Rosh Hashanah and is a core part of our religious inheritance as well. We claim this covenant today in our own words “Love is the spirit of this church and service is our prayer.” A covenant that holds at its center a conversation with the most holy, which for Kerry and I opened our hearts, despite fear and anger, to name each other’s gifts, and urge one another to live into them.

As a hospital chaplain and a parish minister, I discover that this spirit of love is only generated by caring communities committed to the covenantal promise that integrates affection with deeds of action. Here, we commit ourselves every week with the words “this is our great covenant to dwell, to seek, to speak, and to help; A covenant of action that generates a unity in the experience of loving-kindness. Do you know this experience? I feel this quality of loving kindness here.

The beautiful thing about our covenantal tradition is that it is not just a gift of the past, we are expected to participate in its renewal in all the ways we gather. Our Board did just that at its retreat last month and their covenant is in the order of service. It’s beautiful. It begins “With our shared task to keep, at heart, the best interests of the congregation and to fulfill the expectations placed on us as upholders of the Mission and Vision of HUUC and as stewards of the resources of our church, we covenant to:”

  • Reliably attend and be fully engaged in board meetings and show our commitment by being prompt, prepared, and focused;
  • To Apply practices that nurtures our spirits and helps us to be mindful of how the work we do shapes the world. (“The relationships we build while contributing to our church community are as important as the tasks we pursue.”)
  • Demonstrate due process – to preserve integrity while embracing change;
  • To Maintain confidentiality while not perpetuating secrecy;
  • To Practice speech that is open-minded, empathetic, authentic, and kind;
  • Be honest and realistic in our expectations and obligations, both individually and collectively;
  • And To Listen to and affirm one another.

And it ends with “In this spirit of love we agree to further the aspirations of HUUC as we strive to make real the vision of Unitarian Universalism.Isn’t that beautiful, can the board members present stand for just a moment to be recognized? One of my favorite parts of this promise says “Apply practices that nurtures our spirits and helps us to be mindful of how the work we do shapes the world.”For this is what our faith asks of us, to be mindful of how our relationships shape us and how the work we do shapes the world. This is what I am going to tell the next person who says dismissively, Oh, you’re a Unitarian Universalist? You can believe anything you want.” Has anyone ever said this to you? I am going to tell this person that what defines us and what drives us is this desire and will to live into the spirit of love when informed by deep need, commitment, and the subjective connection to the most holy.

This isn’t easy. This asks of you to risk confessing your faith, which means taking the risk to find it. This asks that you face with courage all the feelings that turn on your red light, all the ways in which you keep from yourself the gifts of this relational promise. This asks that you take a journey of a lifetime with courage and integrity, to discover your questions, and your vulnerability. But the act of our covenant assures three things for the journey:

  • -Here you belong, your gifts and your needs
  • -Here, if you fail or fall short we are still in relationship,
  • -Here you will stretch and grow as we practice together new ways of being respectful and affirming.

This is what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. This is the way we bless the source of life, and as we do we are blessed with strength, vision, peace and courage. I thank Kerry and you for taking this journey for we are each other’s teachers. In the spirit Rosh Hashanah, I end with these words from the Jewish service I attended on Friday,
“Everyday creation is renewed, wake up and see unfolding in the spreading light of dawn the world and all it contains coming into being, new, fresh, filled with divine goodness and love. Everyday creation is renewed. Reflected in the great lights we see a new day, one precious day…eternity.” May our hearts be open to the majesty. Blessed Be