Laurel Hallman is Minister Emerita of the First Unitarian Church, Dallas where she served as Senior Minister for 22 years. She was the first woman to serve a large UU congregation as the Senior Minister. Before going to Dallas she was the Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington,
She is known as a spiritual leader,
The Generous Heart
Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman
Preached at the First Unitarian Church of Dallas, September 20, 2015
By Stanley Kunitz
There are many reasons why it is a delight to be back here today in this pulpit, seeing remembered faces, talking about times we had together both good and challenging, sharing the surprise that time has passed, children have grown, some have married and have children of their own, and of course, acknowledging what we also know that some have gone—there are empty places here filled by new members I have yet to meet. That arc of life is a special privilege of members of churches, and I am thrilled to be here in this place where we enjoyed our years together.
When Daniel asked me to preach today and said the theme for the year was the Spirit of Generosity, I was interested. And then he added that he would also be recognizing the 25- and 50-year members, and it was easy to say yes. The 25-year members had joined while I was here, and the 50-year members were the people who created the kind of church that would welcome me to this pulpit; as a woman, and as a short woman, I remain grateful. There are stories to tell of more of
The Layers by Stanley Kunitz, which I read earlier, may not seem like the kind of poem that would be suited to the theme of A Generous Heart, but of all the possibilities that I might bring to you today to illustrate what I might mean, it seems to me to be the best: not a word about money, nothing said about volunteering, churches aren't mentioned, there isn't a theological word in it unless you count “scavenger angels” or “a nimbus-clouded voice”. Kunitz comes at generosity without saying a traditional theological word. Rather than telling us to be generous, he tells us how it is for him, especially when life—and his life in particular—seems to be without form and substance. Kunitz wrote the poem after losses in succession of three of his best friends. Feeling himself moving toward the end of his life, he was having difficulty seeing the meaning of it all. He began to lose the capacity to be generous with himself, which can be a struggle at any age and time. Then one night the words, “live in the layers, not on the litter” came to him and then after that the poem. But I am jumping ahead; we'll get back to litter and layers.
I have walked through many lives—some of them my own. How many lives does it take for us to find at least one that is our own? Kunitz may have been echoing the question asked in the Jewish tradition for the Rabbi Zusya said, “In the world to come, they will not ask me: ‘why were you not like Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘why were you not like Zusya?’” Why were you not you? Why did you not claim your own life, instead of wandering around trying to live a life that wasn't yours? And then of course as life’s inevitable changes occur, how many lives does it take to forge a new life true to the changes that thrust us into new ways of being? Kunitz says he is not who he was—and this is important—though some infinite principle of existence abides from which he struggles not to stray. One could say the early struggles in life are to find the life that is our own—no small task, but later as changes occur, Kunitz says that there is a different task: it is to claim the principal of being that abides within us, and not to stray from that essential quality. If the spiritual life consists of asking good questions, this is a good one. What principle of
When Kunitz looks back, as he is compelled to look, before he can gather strength to proceed on his journey, he is grieving and disheartened: he sees milestones dwindling toward the horizon; he sees slow fires trailing from the abandoned campsites where he has lingered during his life; he sees scavenger angels wheeling on heavy wings; he sees the tribe shaped by his true affections and how scattered his tribe is now. He cannot reconcile his heart to his losses, he says—he calls it “a feast of losses.” He says that the dust of his friends—as in ashes to ashes and dust to dust—the dust of his friends, the ones who fell along the way, bitterly stings his face. He gives us an amazing picture of grief and all the grief can bring. It may be difficult to find the life that is our own as we walk through many lives, but this moment of deep grief is perhaps harder.
I remember a mentor of mine, I've mentioned him here before Harry Scholefield, who spoke of people he knew who had been committed to important justice issues all their lives but forgot the long arch that reaches beyond the individual lives and time before
There is an important point in our lives, perhaps we come to that place more than once, when we face loss and limitation, mortality, and even betrayal, which is a decisive spiritual moment. In Kunitz words, it is to live in the layers, not on the litter. It is the task of choosing the generous and open heart over a closed and bitter spirit. Both emerge from loss, both seem reasonable responses to certain circumstances, but a closed bitter heart, which not only must look back but can only look back, is not likely to be able to cultivate a spacious breath, that interior glance, which can open even the smallest place for a new life to emerge.
It must also be said that the capacity to claim a generous spirit does not happen simply because we decided it will. The practice of choosing to live in the layers, and not on the litter, does not transform one overnight; I speak from experience on this one. Willing a transformation is often a frustrating effort. This transformation is a gift, full of grace, most often I found in the turning.
Here's what happens to Kunitz: he says looking back helps him gather strength so he can continue on his journey; he doesn't look back with the intention of staying there. And then this reminds me of so many of the Psalms which begin with despair and lamentation and then almost between the lines turn to praise and thanksgiving. After describing all his losses, he turns. After describing all he's been through, after being directed to live in the layers and not on the litter by a nimbus-clouded voice—that would be clouds full of rain, full of grief—in the midst of all his loss, in the midst of bitterly stinging grief, he turns. He says his will is intact, and he can go wherever he needs to go. He says every stone on the road is precious to him—a reference to the deep tradition in many cultures of leaving a stone on a gravesite as a token of memory. Every stone, he says, is precious to him.
As I think of people who have passed on gifts of life to me, who have helped me see that life has many layers, and each time I am confronted with loss or despair, my task is to dive deep and live in their continuing flow. I see people who have lived through loss and come to a new place of wisdom and understanding, passing on what has been given to them, living with spaciousness, breathing in gratitude, breathing out generosity.
Kunitz says no doubt the next chapter in my Book of Transformations is already written—probably a reference to the Book of Life open yearly during the Jewish High Holy Days. He turns that image slightly and says the next chapter in my Book of Transformations is already written. Kunitz says I am not done with my changes—and neither are we. At any age or stage of life, when we feel lost or disappointed or deeply grieved, we can remember who we are at the core, at the very center of our beings. We can reminisce—even perhaps ruminate for a time, watch the smoke drift from abandoned campsites and remember why we moved on from them. We can cherish remembered faces, precious moments, and good work, and then we can turn with our wheels intact to go wherever we need to go. And in that turning, receive as much as we are able gifts of new life to be written in our Book of Transformations.
I am no Pollyanna—life can be very hard. But we can be known not for bitterness and complaining ways, but in the end for our generous spirit, looking back in loving memory at what has been, and looking forward with strength and with hope.