You are the Sky: In the Eye of the Storm – January 8, 2023

You are the Sky: In the Eye of the Storm
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
January 8, 2023
with Rev. Kevin Tarsa

with Randy McKean, Worship Associate 

In preparation for UUCM’s upcoming Sabbatical/Renewal and, to be honest, life in general, Rev. Kevin invites us to consider our reactions and responses to change, shifts, the unknown and the conscious and unconscious anxiety that arises in reply. Can we find the gifts at the center of it all? 

Greeting Rev. Kevin Tarsa 

Land Acknowledgement read by Allison Rivers Samson 

Song for Gathering Enter, Rejoice, and Come In #361 by Louise Ruspini  

Welcome Randy McKean, Worship Associate 

Lighting of the Chalice/Opening Words Steadied By Each Other by Rev. Scott Tayler, read by Chuck Champlin 

Wisdom for All Ages The Dervish in the Ditch and Jesus’ Purse, a pair of Sufi wisdom tales, read by Rev. Kevin Tarsa, with Randy McKean 

Singing the Children on Their Way 

Joys & Sorrows 

Music Toby Thomas-Rose, piano 

Prayer & Meditation Comfort Me # 1002 by Mimi Bornstein 

Music Randy McKean, reeds and Toby Thomas-Rose, piano 

Sermon You are the Sky: In the Eye of the Storm Rev. Kevin Tarsa 

Offering Randy McKean, Worship Associate, with Nick Wilczek, Sierra Roots Board Member 

Offertory Toby Thomas-Rose, piano 

Dedication Randy McKean 

Thank you 


Closing Song The Fire of Commitment #1028, words by Mary Katherine Morn and Jason Shelton, music by Jason Shelton 

Closing Words   

Community Benediction / Extinguishing of the Chalice  


You are the Sky: In the Eye of the Storm 

Rev. Kevin Tarsa

Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains

January 8, 2023

I said was going to focus on the experience of anxiety this morning, and the music we just heard gave us an embodied experience of anxiety. Or maybe that was just me. Randy asked me yesterday if the music would be too much. I said, “Oh, no, we can work with that.” It meets some of us where we are. True? It was an aural expression of the swirling that goes on around and within us.

I chose to examine anxiety this morning because so many of you have named, in various way, feeling anxious in the past several years, with plenty of reason (Covid, politics, isolation, health issues, fires, life changes, the second anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, for example), and also, because we’ll soon begin the second and longer portion of our sabbatical/renewal time.

I know from experience that when the minister – when an identified leader – is not present for a time, people often start to feel anxious, sometimes without recognizing why.

In fact, it’s not uncommon, out of that anxiousness, for people to get angry with a minister before an extended leave begins. So seasoned ministers teach us to be ready for that in case it happens, and to recognize that the energy behind someone’s anger might be being fueled or at least heightened by their fears around our coming absence – and maybe fear that the minister won’t come back.  (In case it helps, I’ll take this opportunity to remind you that the congregation and I have a written agreement that after a sabbatical the minister has to stick around for at least another year.)

I expect all kinds of good things to happen here during sabbatical/renewal, AND in case it’s helpful, I wanted to name that what often happens when an identified leader is absent, is that things that would normally not be such a big deal, things that would typically be addressed calmly and relatively easily, become much bigger deals, in ways that surprise people.

Sometimes this is because the presence of the minister – or the behavior of the minister – has kept old underlying tensions at bay, and without the minister there, the magma that has been boiling under the surface all this time breaks through and erupts all over the place. But more commonly, the unrecognized anxiety causes people to latch onto relatively simple molehills and to heap them up to become mountains. The anxiety needs to go somewhere and so it gets attached, unconsciously, to various personal pet peeves or otherwise simple issues. Sometimes little things that have long been nagging people suddenly feel huge and feel like they must be fixed immediately. It’s like the sound of a faucet drip that you can ignore most of the time but that suddenly fills the room and makes you want to tear your hair out. Or is that just me?

Part of what I want to do this morning, then, is to help you be ready for such possibilities, should they arise.

But let me go back to anxiety in general for a moment.

Several times I’ve spoken of tools for calming our anxious selves – breathing consciously and slowly, for example, taking a double breath in, lengthening the outbreath, singing, being with people who care for us – tools that can soothe our systems that are on high alert. And sometimes, that’s what we need first, before we can do anything else: to calm our amygdalas.

Today, however, I want to name another kind of approach to our anxiousness, drawing once again on the insight of Buddhist teacher and nun, Pema Chödrön. I know that a number of members of the congregation have dog-eared copies of Pema Chödrön’s collection of teachings gathered up 26 years ago in a book titled When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. I keep cycling through its chapters, but a good 75-80% of the time – or maybe it’s 95% of the time –  most days, anyway, I find myself returning to Chapter 3 to start my day. Titled “This Very Moment is the Perfect Teacher,” here’s how it begins:

Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors – people who have a certain hunger to know what is true – feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we are holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.

Maybe our amygdala – that almond-shaped and most ancient part of our brain, our first line processor of incoming frightening and threatening stimuli – maybe it IS on such high alert and so stressed out that we won’t be able to do anything until we calm it down. That could very well be.

And another possibility, at least part of the time, is that our anxiousness is after us to pay attention, to learn something, to address something, in which case always trying to soothe ourselves – always trying to soften the discomfort, or pad it, or distract ourselves from it, or ease the pain of it, as Pema notes – perhaps always trying to soothe ourselves is keeping us from learning, from the opportunity to grow in some way we are needing to grow.

Pema writes:

Each day, we’re given many opportunities to open up or shut down. The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening. It’s too much. . . . Things like disappointment and anxiety are messengers telling us that we’re about to go into unknown territory.

Pema Chodron teaches that reaching our limit, and the fear and the trembling that come with it, are not ailments, but rather signs of health, an appropriate response when we meet the place where some piece of who we think we are or need to be is about to die…

The point then, is to notice those daily opportunities to open up or shut down, and to consider the possibility that they might be an invitation, in Pema’s words, an invitation “to lean toward the discomfort of life and see it clearly rather than to protect ourselves from it.”

I.e. it’s an invitation to stay with the discomfort long enough to hear what it has to say, if we can. It means not grabbing on to the discomfort, or investing in it either, but letting it be and being with it, listening for what it might reveal to us.It means becoming curious, means wondering why we’re feeling what we’re feeling, and what need or story or expectation might be beneath it.

There’s a metaphor that I think is helpful to couple with this notion of leaning into and listening to discomfort, because the goal is not to be uncomfortable or to identify with the discomfort, but to be willing to be with discomfort without attaching ourselves to it.

As Pema has put this wisdom from the Buddhist tradition, it’s a reminder that, “You are the sky – everything else, it’s just the weather.”

So much of what we latch on to – our thoughts, our feelings, our angst, our past, our circumstances, our worries – we mistake them for who we are, especially when they are blocking our view of everything beyond them, or burying us like snowstorms, or whipping around us at seemingly hurricane strength. We are not those things, various Buddhist teachers remind us. At root, we are the sky beyond all of the weather, which will eventually always change and pass.

When I am feeling anxious, I’m finding it helpful to remember that I am not the blustery weather swirling inside me -as seductive as it is. One of the things that solo camping in redwood forests and along ocean waves for three weeks did for me this fall, was allow me to be with my internal weather long enough to listen to it without trying to get away from it, and to recognize, for a time, being the sky beyond the weather. It’s the goal of many kinds of meditation, and at heart, the goal of all mystical traditions, like the Sufism from which our wisdom stories came today: to remember and to experience ourselves as sky, a place from which we can call out blessings to those trapped by their own weather, a place from which we are more likely to be able to give out love to those who aren’t knowing themselves as loved.

In the next several months, during our sabbatical renewal time, when life events and world events are swirling, and when some oddly specific points of focus in the congregation might start to gather more emotional energy than seems warranted (like around who’s supposed to empty the dishwasher, or the arrangement of the chairs, or the color of the back door, …or slightly more significant issues), I invite you to perk up, to get curious rather than furious, and gently to lean in rather than back away. I invite you not to grab onto it either, but to be with it, to listen beneath and beyond it for what it might really have to say, to realize that the anxious energy might be coming from a different issue than is being expressed. I invite you to notice what is weather – yours or someone else’s – and what is sky.  

I have one other request related to anxiousness when the minister is away, another preparation that I hope will be helpful and that you’ll take on together. One self-soothing behavior when we are anxious – and we’ve pointed out that there are plenty of reasons to be anxious – is to loop other people into our anxiety, both to release (or ramp up) its energy and also so that we’re not alone in it. One of the very human ways this happens, is to grumble about someone or something, without talking TO the person being talked ABOUT or who has responsibility for that thing.

So…if you find yourself grumbling about someone to someone or someone(s) else, or find yourself voicing frustration about what someone else has done or is doing or is not doing, and you haven’t talked to that person yet, I invite you to notice as soon as you can that you are doing that and, first of all, to stop. Then, if you can, to find a way to talk to or communicate with that person directly yourself, with both clarity and kindness. I know, it’s not easy. It may help to call on a wise and trusted friend who can help you gather your courage and clarify your thoughts, who can affirm the healthy step you are taking, and celebrate with you when you take it.

And if someone comes grumbling to you about someone else, I would ask you to encourage them – I want to say insist but let’s start with encourage them – to share their concern with the person directly. Affirm and support their ability to do that, and the importance of doing so, for everyone’s sake. If the person is not feeling able to do that, suggest that it may help to call on a wise and trusted friend who can help them gather their courage and clarify their thoughts, and who can affirm the healthy step they are taking. Maybe that’s you, maybe not.  And if they are not willing to communicate with the person, and come to you again to grumble, ask them to stop, encourage them again to communicate directly, knowing and naming that it will be healthy for both them and the congregation.

I’m naming this as a sabbatical time invitation, but of course, this is important all the time.

None of us knows what the next four and half months will bring. The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman says that we’re in a time of “liquid culture,” meaning that we’re in a world that is changing so quickly that there isn’t time for a reasoned response. By the time we figure out a response to any change, he points out, the conditions that necessitated that response will already have shifted.

Discomfort and some amount of anxiety are surely going to come with these times, and for some people in the congregation, that anxiety will be heightened by the absence of the minister, who is often a calming influence, who in fact was called by the congregation seven years ago to be a calming influence. Happily, this congregation will have a wonderful, warm and insightful part-time sabbatical minister in Rev. Janet Onnie, who will be introduced and who will take part in the service next Sunday. Thankfully, this congregation also has many wise and heart-centered leaders and members.

So yes, breathe, consciously and slowly, take double breaths in, lengthen the outbreath, sing, be with people who care about you …AND….when you can, lean toward the discomfort that arises and see it clearly, listen for what it might have to say.

It’s a good thing each moment is the perfect teacher, because, that’s always what we’ve got.

The good news from Pema Chodron is that

“Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives.”

Once in a while, we can even remember and realize that we are the sky and that all the rest is the weather.

So may we know it to be.

So may we know ourselves to be.