When Things Fall Apart


The Rev. Jennie Barrington, Interim Minister


Opening Words [Pema Chodron]:

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” From, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times


The Morning Reading, “The Future,” by Wesley McNair

On the afternoon talk shows of America
the guests have suffered life’s sorrows
long enough. All they require now
is the opportunity for closure,
to put the whole thing behind them
and get on with their lives. That their lives,
in fact, are getting on with them even
as they announce their requirement
is written on the faces of the younger ones
wrinkling their brows, and the skin
of their elders collecting just under their
set chins. It’s not easy to escape the past,
but who wouldn’t want to live in a future
where the worst has already happened
and Americans can finally relax after daring
to demand a different way? For the rest of us,
the future, barring variations, turns out
to be not so different from the present
where we have always lived– the same
struggle of wishes and losses, and hope,
that old lieutenant, picking us up
every so often to dust us off and adjust
our helmets. Adjustment, for that matter,
may be the one lesson hope has to give,
serving us best when we begin to find
what we didn’t know we wanted in what
the future brings. Nobody would have asked
for the ice storm that takes down trees
and knocks the power out, leaving nothing
but two buckets of snow melting
on the wood stove and candlelight so weak,
the old man sitting at the kitchen table
can hardly see to play cards. Yet how else
but by the old woman’s laughter
when he mistakes a jack for a queen
would he look at her face in the half-light as if
for the first time while the kitchen around them
and the very cards he holds in his hands
disappear? In the deep moment of his looking
and her looking back, there is no future,
only right now, all, anyway, each one of us
has ever had, and all the two of them,
sitting together in the dark among the cracked
notes of the snow thawing beside them
on the stove, [all the two of them], right now, will ever need.

Sermon: “When Things Fall Apart”


The flooding we were hit with last month was devastating for our city. It seemed to come out of nowhere. No one had experienced anything like it, here, before, and no one could have foreseen it. The flooding is over now; it’s behind us. Thank God for that.  But I think that it is only now that we are beginning to be able to be present to, and process, what we all just went through. And I think it will take many sensitive conversations, over many weeks, or even many months, before we fully process the ways the flooding changed our city, our lives, and, to some extent, ourselves. I do feel that the flooding brought together our congregation, neighborhoods, and whole city, in some beautiful and moving ways. That has been heartening for me to experience. And it’s made me feel even more solidly that your congregation, and Columbia, South Carolina, are exactly where I’m supposed to be dwelling and ministering at this time. But, if we are to be completely honest, the flooding has shaken us all up, badly. Some people’s homes were damaged. All of us had to boil our water for it to be potable. Some of us did not have running water, but did have electricity and other niceties like internet and cable. Many people did not have any electricity, but did have running water. And all of our lives were disrupted by the high water itself, the closed roads and bridges, and the images of cars, and other objects, floating above the intersections we used to drive through so placidly. So I wanted us to hear, this morning, some wisdom for times when life hits us with a blow from out of nowhere. And the first such wisdom that came to my mind is that of contemporary Buddhist teacher, Ms. Pema Chodron. One of her best known books is called, When Things Fall Apart – Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times. The life event that caused Ms. Chodron to really immerse herself in Buddhist teachings and practices was that her husband told her he had been having an affair, and he wanted a divorce. But in writing about times “when things fall apart,” Ms. Chodron is really writing about feelings of fear, anxiety, and stress. Such fundamentally unsettling emotions are part of every human being’s life, sometimes every day, for long periods of time. Buddhist teachings can be very helpful in such times. But Such teachings are not easy to grasp, accept, and practice. Many of you know that central to Buddhism are the truths that “all life is suffering” and that everything is actually impermanent. Ms. Chodron acknowledges that human beings’ inclination is to sidestep and avoid fear, anxiety, and stress. Yet her application of those Buddhist teachings is to advise us to be as present as we possibly can be to our fear, anxiety, and stress. Those things are not going to go away by our avoiding them, are they? She writes that paying attention to that which is immediately right around us and within us will, over time, strengthen us for whatever life throws at us, and will bring us closer to enlightenment. Here is the excerpt from Ms. Chodron’s book, The Wisdom of No Escape, that our recent flooding brought to my mind:


“If you want to attain enlightenment, you have to do it now…  the more you open your heart, the more you make friends with your body, speech, mind, and the world that’s inside of your circle  –your domestic situation, the people you live with, the house you find yourself eating breakfast in every day–  the more you appreciate the fact that when you turn on the tap, water comes out.  If you have ever lived without water, you really appreciate that.  There are all kinds of miracles. Everything is like that, absolutely wonderful…  Our life’s work is to use what we have been given to wake up.  If there were two people who were exactly the same  –same body, same speech, same mind, same mother, same father, same house, same food, everything the same–  one of them could use what he has to wake up and the other could use it to become more resentful, bitter, and sour.  It doesn’t matter what you’re given, whether it’s ugliness, mental stability or mental instability, life in the middle of a madhouse or life in the middle of a peaceful, silent desert.  Whatever you’re given can wake you up or put you to sleep.  That’s the challenge of now:  What are you going to do with what you have already–  your body, your speech, your mind?”


I know that, in this aftermath of the flooding, many of you have felt badly shaken up by the ways our lives have been disrupted and, simultaneously, guilty for feeling that way when, like me, your homes were not significantly damaged. Ms. Chodron would advise you not to sidestep the fact that you are feeling that way. It’s simply how you are feeling: sad, frustrated, shaken up, and guilty, all mixed up with many other emotions, too. Ms. Chodron would say that all of those feelings are understandable and valid and an opportunity to grow, spiritually, if we allow ourselves to be present to them. In her book, When Things Fall Apart, she writes:


“Reaching our limit is not some kind of punishment. It’s actually a sign of health that when we meet the place where we are about to die, we feel fear and trembling. A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. Things like disappointment and anxiety are messengers telling us that we’re about to go into unknown territory. Our bedroom closet can be unknown territory for some of us. For others it’s going into outer space. What evokes hope and fear for me is different from what brings it up for you. My aunt reaches her limit when I move a lamp in her living room. My friend completely loses it when she has to move to a new apartment. My neighbor is afraid of heights. It doesn’t really matter what causes us to reach our limit. The point is that sooner or later, it happens to all of us.” [pp. 16 – 17] I hope that those words from such a wise and spiritually evolved religious teacher help you feel validated and empathized with, in your many emotional reactions brought up by the floods.


Another wise author I have often turned to for advice about weathering difficult times is Gail Sheehy. She is a sociologist who wrote the books, Passages, (you will recall its rainbow colored cover), and Pathfinders. Much as we try to manage the stress of our daily lives, stressful things happen to each of us that we never asked for, couldn’t have prevented, and are just unfair.  Some people are better than others at finding a path through these crises to an eventual state of well-being.  Gail Sheehy calls those people, “Pathfinders.”  In her book, she found that “Pathfinders” have certain qualities in common that we could all try to cultivate.  “Pathfinders” have, through facing their losses and failures, built up a core of strength they can draw from in hard times.  They are able to maintain their sense of well-being even when beset by senseless tragedy.  I’m interested in what those common qualities of “Pathfinders” are.


The first characteristic is that their life has meaning and direction.  People with a high degree of well-being find meaning in being involved with something greater than themselves:  a vocation; an idea; helping others, including strangers, anonymously; or a social justice cause.  


Also, they’ve handled important transitions in their lives in an unusual or creative way.  Rather than sitting around and complaining about how they’ve been done wrong, they are resourceful enough to find ways to expand themselves and their options.  They rarely feel cheated or disappointed by life.  They are able to look back on failures and see ways that those failures ended up being beneficial to them in the long run.


“Pathfinders” have also already achieved several of their long-term goals, most notably, a comfortable life, family security, and a sense of accomplishment.  That leads to feeling proud of their personal growth and development.  They are able to be honest, loving, and responsible, and they know that they are able to–  They are able to trust themselves.  Being in an intimate relationship in which you mutually love and are loved, of course, leads to a lasting sense of well-being.  And there’s nothing better than having many friends and mentors you can go to for understanding and support.  Also mentioned were having an optimistic, forward-looking outlook, rather than getting stuck in anger and self-pity; and being thick-skinned enough not to take criticism of your work personally.  The last quality mentioned is not having any major fears–  I don’t know about that one–  In my experience, everyone has at least one major fear.  But, ideally, that fear will not prevent a person from leading an active, satisfying life.  


All of these characteristics add up to having a strong sense of faith–  That does not necessarily mean that the person is a member of a formal religious institution.  It means they feel a trustworthy connection to movements or forces or ethical codes larger than themselves–  plus faith in other people, and, ultimately, they’re able to have faith in themselves.  Gail Sheehy writes:  “Anything that stimulates honesty of mind, or that rare form of love that is unconditional, can be a conduit for spiritual expression.  Some of the “Pathfinders” found [meaning in] literature, music, or climbing a mountain to seek that silence unadorned by illusion, where the presence of God may be felt.” [p. 281]


The main thing I am saying to you this morning is that, even though the flooding is over, we are still in a stressful time, an emotional time, an anxious time. And all of you would rather be in a role of caretaker than in the role of receiving care, yourselves. You are all trying earnestly to help people who suffered from the floods, especially people who were harder hit than you were. And I am trying earnestly, too, to help people in need in our congregation and its wider community. And you are doing very helpful work in many ways. But everyone has to accept help in some ways, too. All caretakers have to also take care of themselves, and let others tend to some of their needs. Some basic advice for people in a caretaker role includes:


  • Take one day at a time;
  • Accept help; no one can do everything;
  • Make your health a priority;
  • Make time for yourself [i.e., read a magazine, take a walk, watch a movie, visit a friend, go out to lunch or any other relaxing activity;]
  • Rest, exercise, and eating properly are important for you, too; [and, lastly]
  • Find at least one person you can talk to and share your feelings with.

    Keeping these words of wisdom in mind can help us manage our stress level in those times when it starts to rise as we try to take care of everyone who needs our help, including ourselves.

Speaking of the importance of finding a friend you can talk to and share your feelings with, I’ll close this morning with this story by Southern essayist and humorist, Ms. Bailey White. It’s from her book, Sleeping at the Starlite Motel, and it’s called, “Civilized Friends:”


“One of my dearest childhood friends has lived, for the past twenty-five years, in Paris, where she teaches English to French people. I see Alma only once a year, when she comes home to visit her family for a couple weeks. She calls me up when she gets here, and I go over to her mother’s house in the afternoon, and we sit in the living room and drink tea.


“Sometimes I try to talk Alma into doing some of the things I enjoy–  swimming in the deep springs and sinkholes in north Florida, or just taking a long walk in the woods in the late afternoon. But Alma says that something about living in Paris for so many years has caused her to develop an irrational fear of the natural world.


“’But it’s not like we’re in the wilds of Borneo,’ I tell her. ‘What exactly are you afraid of?’ I’m thinking that if I can comfort her with a few reassuring facts, she will lose her fears.


“Alma says, ‘I’m afraid an insect will bite me, or I’ll fall over and be scratched by a tree.’

“’Well, Alma,’ I say, ‘Have another cup of tea.’


“On other visits, Alma tries to talk me into coming to see her in Paris. She describes fascinating cosmopolitan friends, and peculiar little museums she knows about, and wonderful cheeses. But I tell Alma I just can’t get up my nerve to go there. ‘What exactly are you afraid of?’ she asks me. And I say, ‘I’m afraid I will find myself abandoned in the middle of a busy intersection, and I will stand there, and stand there, trying to find the courage to cross the street, and cars will whizz by, in five or six directions, and drivers will blow their horns, and shout at me in a language I do not speak. And eventually, I will wither up and be blown away like a piece of ash and lost in the shadows of a great city far from home.


“Alma thinks for awhile. ‘Have another cup of tea, Bailey,’ she says.


“And in the end, I don’t really regret that Alma and I can’t share the things we each love best. I’m just happy that we are both so civilized we can sustain a friendship for twenty-five years on nothing more than cups of tea and conversation.”


In such an unsettling time as this, may we be gentle with each other and ourselves.


*Hymn #128 For All that is our Life


*Benediction [the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons]:

“There is, finally, only one thing required of us–  that is: to take life whole, the sunlight and shadow together, to live the life that is given us with courage and humor and truth.  We have such a little moment, out of all the vastness of time, for all our wondering and loving–  Therefore, let there be no half-heartedness. Therefore, let the soul be ardent in its pain, its yearning, and in its praise–  Then shall peace enfold our days, and glory shall not fade from our lives.”