Darkness: The Darkness Inside by Rev. Michael Leuchtenberger

The Darkness Inside

a sermon by Rev. Michael Leuchtenberger

Given Sunday, January 9, 2011, Unitarian Universalist Church of Concord, New Hampshire

“I saw what love might have done, had we loved in time.” I had tears in my eyes when I first read this poem.

Perhaps it was the image of the young, blue-eyed, hopeful father degenerating so completely, with even the least of his dreams frozen inside. I am a young and hopeful father.

Perhaps it was the imagine of the grown-up child so afraid to open the door because of what would happen if the father entered the home. I am a grown-up child.
Perhaps I had tears in my eyes because I cannot imagine to look into the eyes of a loved one and find them blank and devoid of the love I crave. I am a lover. It is love that brings light into my life.

We don’t know the story behind the lower lip swollen with bitterness, leaving us wondering what regret, what disappointment, what loathing may be to blame.

We don’t know why he is returning, returning on the darkest of nights knocking wildly at the door, leaving us to wonder where he is the rest of the time?

We don’t know and, yet, many of us recognize that knock because we’ve heard it before, on our own dark nights, knocking on our own doors, causing us to lose sleep again and again as we try to ignore what cannot be ignored.

Here is a story about St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio based on a version by storyteller Bob Wilhelm.

The people of the little Italian town of Gubbio are understandably very proud of their beautiful home. Then one night a shadow comes out of the nearby woods and prowls the streets. In the morning the people of Gubbio find a mangled and gnawed dead body. This happens again and again. Finally an old woman says the she has seen a wolf on the streets at night. The terrified people decide to ask a holy man who has a reputation for being able to talk to animals for his help. They send a delegation to get St. Francis.
They have very specific ideas on what St. Francis should tell the wolf. First, he should preach to him and remind him to obey the commandment against killing (and perhaps throw in a word about the inherent worth and dignity of every person) and to follow Christ’s commandment about loving God and neighbors. And then, just in case, since a wolf is, after all, a wolf, he should tell the wolf to move to someone else’s city.

Francis goes into the forest to meet the strange shadow, addressing it as “Brother Wolf.” Then he returns to the town square. “My good people of Gubbio, the answer is very simple. You must feed your wolf.” The people are furious, especially with the suggestion that this uninvited beast in their midst is somehow to be regarded as “their wolf.” But they do feed it, and the killing stops.

Most of the stories we read to, or watch with our kids are stories of good versus bad. The pattern is quite predictable. Someone good is treated unfairly which results in a struggle of long odds between a group of good and bad characters. As the story unfolds, we are taken for an emotional rollercoaster ride as evil threatens to overpower good until, just before the end, we are emotionally released as good triumphs once again.

The world is back to how it should be, peaceful, governed by trustworthy and virtuous decision- makers. The wolf, or its equivalent, usually ends up dead, in prison, or in the zoo, safely away from us, the good people – until the release of the sequel.
I love those stories, and, as I have been told, seeing the world in black and white is entirely age appropriate – until about age twelve to fifteen. That’s when our ability to understand multiple perspectives allows us to place our moral decisions in context. That’s when our ability to understand multiple perspectives forces us to see that moral dilemmas create shades of grey and that the world is full of moral dilemmas.

Telling stories when we identify with more than one side of the story becomes more challenging, yet it also becomes more real. What is threatening about this way of telling our stories is that it brings us closer to the dark side, the side we are afraid or ashamed to acknowledge, the “wolf” we would prefer to move to someone else’s city.
I remember watching a documentary in the mid-1980s about a person who had graduated in a decade before from the same German high school I was attending at the time. He was the son of a school teacher, well-liked, bright, a student leader, deeply concerned about injustice and exploitation, interested in politics, history and philosophy. The more I heard about this person, the more I felt a kinship. I imagined we would have been friends had we attended our school at the same time. I felt we were on the same trajectory in life.

I was watching this documentary, because this potential friend of mine was now one of the top terrorists threatening the safety of the West German establishment. His group, the Red Army Fraction, had been involved in the killing and kidnapping of a number of high level officials and industrialists. His name was Christian Klar, and he had just been sentenced to life in prison.

Somewhere along the way our trajectories did diverge. He was just paroled after 26 years in prison. I became a minister. What made the difference? I can try and laugh this off as a silly question. Yet I do know that seeing the documentary frightened me for the mirror it held up of the potential within me and my friends. Growing up in Germany, I was keenly aware that few are truly immune to the possibility of evil action.

Yet, for most, the darkness inside does not show itself in the temptation of terrorist acts, genocide, mass murder, or torture. The darkness inside shows up as a result of much more everyday activities.

And most likely, it is mixed with plenty of light, so much so that we may not even notice the shadows claiming their spaces here and there.

Perhaps we ate more than our share of chocolates, or perhaps we had more than our share of liquor before getting into our car. Perhaps we spent another evening or weekend at the office, yet again, or we spent the money we did not have on something we did not need. Perhaps we told a lie to cover our lack of dependability, or perhaps we depended on our ability to manipulate a spouse or a friend.

The shadows appear when we cause harm, and the shadows appear when we act in ways that contradict our values. Our values shape our identity and who we think we are.
I like to think of myself as someone who would never hit a child. Hitting a child would add a shadow. The darkness inside would spread.

I like to think that I would grieve the death of my mother or father. Not grieving would add a shadow.

I like to think of myself as someone who would take care of his body knowing its physical abuse would impact others. Being careless with my body would add a shadow.
Our values shape who we are, yet our values can come into conflict. Living true to one value may force us to compromise another value. For religious liberals, this is a tension we have to be willing to embrace. Good and bad are not independent forces engaged in a cosmic struggle for control. Good and bad grow out of the same, singular life force. We each have the capacity for both.

This means, we will make mistakes, we will cause harm, we will contradict ourselves, and we will feel the darkness inside.

And this means, we will do good, we will bring joy, and we will feel the light inside. There is a balance to life. Our charge is to do what we can to tip that balance, to nudge it in the direction of goodness and light.

Forgiving ourselves and each other when mistakes have been made is one way to tip that balance. And it appears that we are biologically hardwired with the ability to forgive. Michael McCullough is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami in Florida. On the NPR program “Speaking of Faith,” he explained our capacity for forgiveness as an essential evolutionary trait in species that depend on cooperation for survival. In his words:

“You can’t get organisms that are willing to hang in there with each other through thick and thin and make good things happen despite the roadblocks and the bumps along the way if they aren’t willing to tolerate each other’s mistakes. Sometimes if we’re cooperatively hunting — let’s say we’re some sort of animal [..] that works together to hunt — sometimes I’m going to let you down. And maybe it’s not even intentional, but I’m going to get distracted and I’m going to make a mistake.

And if you take each of those mistakes as the last word about my cooperative disposition, you might just give up and so no cooperation gets done. So, really, our ability, [..] to cooperate with each other and make things happen that [we] can’t do on [our] own is undergirded by an ability to forgive each other for occasional defections and mistakes.”
He does not mean to imply that forgiveness is easy or always possible. It can take time and it can take intentional preparation. We have to be willing to see the humanity in the other person. We have to be able to see the world from more than a single perspective. Seeing the world in black and white is not helpful here. There is always more than one story, more than one way to tell the story, more than one way to hear the story.

And this is true whether the story involves two friends, a family, a church community, a nation, or one, singular person struggling to reconcile his or her conflicting actions and desires. Forgiveness does not make our mistakes go away, yet forgiveness opens the door for us to begin again, and begin again in love.

“I saw what love might have done had we loved in time.” Let us open our doors and our hearts while we have the time.

Balance: The Paradox of Balance

The Paradox of Balance

a sermon by Rev. Michael Leuchtenberger

Given on 17 October 2010 to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Concord, New Hampshire.


Two summers ago our family went to see a performance of Cirque Shanghai at Navy Pier in Chicago. A young boy, perhaps 12 years old, suddenly appeared on stage. On the floor was a piece of metal piping about 8 inches in diameter and a foot long. He rolled it back and forth, then took a board just big enough to stand on, placed it on top of the pipe and carefully stepped on top of the board. He waved his hands and the audience offered polite applause. Not bad for a 12 year old.

Next he took another metal pipe, placed it on top of the first at right angles, added the board and once again began to balance on top of these three moving parts. The applause grew. Not bad for a circus performer.

He jumped down, took another metal pipe, added it to the pile and somehow managed to look graceful as he stepped back onto this impossibly wobbly contraption. His concentration was showing but he remained in control and the audience became mesmerized.
I forget how many more times he upped the ante – but by the end of his act he had to use a ladder just to reach the top of his tower of moving parts. Impossible it should have been, even for a circus performer, especially a 12 year old.

I love such displays of excellence. I find them inspiring, aesthetically pleasing, and somehow deeply satisfying. They seem to surpass ordinary life. Yet while I remain in awe of the balancing skills of this young artist, I recognize that he is not unique in what he is doing.

All of us are involved in many balancing acts each day. Life is at its core an attempt at balancing. We know we need to balance how much we sleep and how much we are awake. We know we need to balance our appetite for food with our ability to metabolize what we take in. We know we need to balance what we wear and the temperature around us.

There is no question that finding the right balance is critical to our wellbeing. Many books have been written to explain to us exactly how we can achieve balance, what we need to have to be balanced, what we need to buy to be balanced.

Balance has become another commodity we would like to acquire and then be done with it. But balance is no commodity. Balance cannot be purchased like a table, a car, or a house. Balance is a skill. It implies motion, motion to adjust to the never ending changes that threaten to throw us and all of life off balance.

Even the performance in the circus offered merely the illusion of static balance. The young acrobat appeared still yet was constantly adjusting to avoid falling down. There is nothing static about balance when you stand on top of a pile of moving parts.
Life is no different. Life is one big pile of moving parts. And we get to stand in the middle of that pile on our board trying to adjust to the constant movement, trying to avoid falling as the board is nudged or even thrown in new and unpredictable ways.
Getting to the point of perfect balance and holding onto it may seem impossible – because it is impossible. Yet balance has to remain the goal despite the understanding that perfect balance can never be achieved, despite our awareness that perfect balance will never last. Such is the paradox of balance, the recognition that we are required to strive for what is impossible to achieve, and we are sure to lose at the end.

Luckily, many of the balancing acts we face each day are forgiving and don’t require perfect balance. They have margins of errors like bowling on a wide bowling lane. Nothing drastic will happen if we miss the point of balance by a little. If we stay awake for a few minutes after we get tired we will not suffer greatly. If we eat another spoonful after our body tells us we are full, we will not suffer noticeably. If the temperature is comfortable and we put on an extra pair of thin socks, we will probably be just fine.

Facing wide bowling lanes instead of razor’s edges – or a tight rope – in our daily balancing acts is what makes life possible. If every small misstep resulted in terrible consequences, few of us would still be around. Yet, the forgiving nature of the balancing we do most of the time can create the illusion that no matter where we step we will remain balanced and will avoid falling. We become complacent. We stop paying attention to how close to the gutter (of our figurative bowling lane) we’ve come.
We take out a little credit to make a particular moment more pleasant or help smooth over a tight spot in our finances. No big deal. We pay it off next month. Then we do it again. And again, only this time we didn’t get to pay off what we owed from before. No big deal.

Yet suddenly, we look at a credit card statement that tells us we owe three months worth of our salary and a few days later that salary is replaced by unemployment payments (if that) and no future salaries in sight.

Suddenly the stakes in our balancing act have become a lot higher and the skills required to remain balanced a lot more complex. Over the past few years, many of us have reached a threshold or tipping point in our own personal lives in how we approach our financial balancing act. And certainly, our society at a large is in the middle of a giant effort to regain a sense of balance economically and financially.

But while the economic crisis of imbalance has captured our attention there are other dimensions of our lives that are equally imperiled by our lack of balancing skills.

For hundreds of years we have treated the resources of our earth like a credit card that carries no monthly fee, charges zero percent interest, and has no spending limit. We know better, of course.

We cannot continue to withdraw capital from the ecological endowment fund that nature has accumulated and expect that it will continue to support our out-of-balance spending habits. If we take clean water from a lake and add pollutants instead, our access to water clean enough to drink will soon be exhausted.

Nature can be forgiving for a while. Most ecosystems have a carrying capacity that allows the system to assimilate change. But once we push beyond the limits of the carrying capacity, the ecosystem will collapse and will take a long time to recover, if ever.

It may be impossible to know and achieve the perfect balance in our interactions with our environment but we must attempt to find a point of balance nonetheless. The paradox of balance, the need for balance despite the impossibility of achieving balance, does not let us off the hook.

Trying to balance a global system of finances or ecosystems may seem overwhelming. But we can and ought to practice our balancing skills right where we are. It begins with an honest look at our responsibilities, our priorities, and how we spend our time and energy.

In the mid-1990s I was working as an environmental consultant in the Washington, DC area. I had no wife or kids yet, but I had a good group of friends and a number of hobbies. One day I was invited to a wedding by a friend. I was excited and thanked him for the invitation. Yet on the day of the wedding I ended up going to the office instead of celebrating with my friend and his new wife. Some project needed my attention.

Just recounting the story it seems absurd. Clearly my balancing skills had failed me. I had failed to look at the bigger picture on how to be in harmony with those around me. I had failed to Stop! Look! And Listen! as the Buddhists would suggest. I am sad to say our relationship did not survive this gutter ball I rolled. In retrospect I recognize that I upset the balance of the community of which I was a part.

I had another friend who learned to play Go while in grad school. Go is a 4,000 year old board game of strategy, tactics, and aesthetics. No computer can yet touch the competency of advanced human players. There are leagues of professional players in Japan and scores of devoted amateurs all around the world. Go is a fascinating game and my friend became obsessed. Six years into his Ph.D. program he was still playing Go but he had made little progress on his dissertation. A short while afterwards, he quit school without finishing his degree – a casualty of his devotion to Go. Clearly his balancing skills were also suffering.
And he knew it all along. My friend’s problem was not Stop! Look! Listen! but the lack of will power to change course despite having paid attention. His wife and young child paid part of the price. His actions were not in harmony with his priorities. He behaved in a way that upset the balance of his most important community.

Diane Rizzetto in her book “Waking Up To What You Do” tells the story of an interesting community ritual of an indigenous tribe in Tasmania. “When something happens in which someone behaves unskillfully, thus upsetting the balance of the community, the group comes together around the fire to reenact the situation.

For example, if a man yells at his wife a lot and chases her out of the hut, causing havoc in the village, he is brought before the community, not to be judged or reprimanded, but rather to help him see the absurdity of his behavior. Members of the tribe role-play the scene between him and his wife in a lighthearted way. The villagers, including children, all take part, laughing, joking, and mimicking the absurdity of the behavior until the man himself relaxes and also realizes the absurdity of his actions.
Interestingly enough, even his wife takes part in the villagers’ dramatization. Before too long, the whole scene turns into a big party and the husband and wife provide food for the rest of the villagers. The purpose of the ritual is to acknowledge their fallibility openly so that they can put it into perspective, even laugh at it.”

While our urban life style may not allow our whole village to get involved when we upset the balance in our lives, the ritual suggests a valuable idea: Whether we lack awareness of what we are doing or the will power to change it we can and should hold each other accountable more creatively.

Non-violent communication, as we have studied and begun to practice it here at church, is one of these creative ways. Learning to call and facilitate restorative circles is one of the approaches we can use when our community is off balance.

Or, what would happen if we replaced the ubiquitous “how are yous?” with an earnest “How are your balancing skills right now?” or “What are you doing these days to remain in harmony with yourself and your community?”

I don’t mean to imply there is no time or place for focused attention on a singular activity. Spending one-on-one time with one of my children is important to a sense of balance or harmony in our family. Yet if a week passes and I have barely said a word to my other child, the harmony is clearly broken and more skillful balancing is required.

The appropriate timeframe for balancing varies greatly. Some things need to be balanced daily, other things can wait months, years, even a lifetime. I don’t need to go running every day to feel balanced, but if I don’t get exercise for more than a few weeks I begin to sense an imbalance in my life. I don’t need to talk to my long distance friends every week, but if months pass without contact I begin to feel the balance is off. I don’t need to have a vacation every month, but if more than a year goes by without a break in the routine, I know I am no longer balancing as I should.

What’s important is that for most of us to do well at our balancing acts it helps to be held accountable explicitly. And we need each other to do so.

For some of us, our parents played this role. When we were obsessed with sports, or clothes, or grades, they nudged us to remember other interests and activities. They reminded us to pay attention to our whole lives and to accept the co-responsibility for the harmony of the community of which we are a part.

Some of us have used counseling or life coaching to create structures of creative accountability. Covenant group or other small groups can also allow for honest reflection on our commitments to a balanced life. There is no single approach that will work for all of us.

One unexpected experience with accountability I had during my internship at Unity Temple. Within the first month I had to complete a learning service agreement. This agreement spells out the expectations for what I wanted to learn and what I was expected to do during my time as an intern minister. My internship supervisor, along with the members of my internship committee helped me put together this agreement. It talked about pastoral care, social action, teaching, interfaith work, administrative skills, and, of course, worship arts, the stuff ministers do when we are up here in the pulpit. But it didn’t stop there. The form also required me to spell out how I would practice self care and what my spiritual practices would look like.
At first I resisted. Why does my personal life need to get dragged into what I learn and do on internship? But soon it became obvious. Being explicit about what I need for self care and personal spiritual growth – and having my supervisor and committee agree to it – offered just the protection I needed when the balancing got difficult.

It allowed me to justify reading a book of fiction, to spend time composing music, to write in my journal, or to prioritize date night with my wife over competing events at church. I was just as accountable to do those things as I was to learn about church administration, to make pastoral care visits, or to attend regional ministers’ gatherings.

An agreement such as my learning service agreement doesn’t guarantee we won’t fall or send bowling balls into the gutter. Yet it can help us begin to justify a transformation in how we prioritize what we do because it helps us internalize a different set of values. If balance and harmony are recognized as important ultimate goals, stress and burn-out and frustration caused by the pursuit of other goals are no longer as justified. Polluted air, eroded landscapes, lost species caused by the pursuit of other goals are no longer as justified. Poverty, hunger, and sickness caused by the pursuit of other goals are no longer as justified.

The more we accept that striving for balance remains essential despite the impossibility of ever achieving it, the more we are willing to embrace the paradox of balance, the more it becomes possible to imagine a world where harmony and peace within people, among people and with the earth are more than a dream of the future.

May it be so.