First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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The Language of Letting Go

December 1, 2013
Rev. Sandra Fees

A Mediterranean story tells of a very old man who lived a long happy life on a beautiful island. He loved his homeland. Through many generations, his family had lived there, made their home there, and earned their livelihood. When he realized he was reaching the end of his life, he asked his sons to take him outside one last time. He knelt down and gathered a handful of island soil, which he clutched tightly in his gnarled hands.

Soon afterward he died. Upon arriving at heaven’s gates, the angels greeted him. When he tried to cross the threshold, however, he was unable. The angels said: “You must let go of the soil you are clutching.” The old man said he could never do that. “This,” he said, “is my native soil, the earth of my beloved island home.” So the man wandered alone outside the gate. After a few years, the angels brought the man a taste of the heavenly banquet trying to entice him to come in. he wanted to join them, but was still unable to let go of the soil he was grasping. Again, they left him. After still more years, the angels returned this time with the old man’s granddaughter who had grown old herself and died. She was thrilled to see her grandfather. “Oh, granddad,” she said, “I’m so happy you are here. Please come and join us in the heavenly kingdom. We love you so much, and we want you with us for all eternity.”

The old man was so overwhelmed to see his granddaughter, that he completely forgot himself. In his joy, he flung out his arms to embrace her. When he did, the soil slipped right through is fingers. And as he passed through the gate, he saw the whole of his beloved island awaiting him. (“Letting Go,” One Hundred Wisdom Stories from around the World, Margaret Silf)

Letting go of our tight grasp on things is in our own self-interest. It just doesn’t always seem that way. It seems that by holding on tighter and tighter that we will be able to have what we want. When we grasp one thing too tightly, we can’t reach for anything else. The old man clutches the soil of his homeland in his hands. And who hasn’t done that! We’ve all been there. We’ve all held tightly, too tightly, to something or someone. We cling to people who have died, to people who have left our lives and are no longer in relationship with us, to the past, to particular outcomes or results, to the need to know, to fear, control, feelings, and to addictions. We cling to possessions, prejudice, to the need to be right, to old ideas, to anger, hatred, grief, resentment, anxiety about money, shame, cynicism, impatience, worry, perfectionism, over-spending, self-criticism, assumptions, and expectations.

Only when we let go and embrace what is right in front of us can we truly live. Like the old man, only when we let go of what we hold too tightly and reach out in love to what is right in front of us, will we find our happiness and our lives. Joseph Campbell said, “We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” By clinging to the past, we lose the chance to experience our present lives.

Religion teaches the importance, the necessity, of letting go and how to practice doing so. Most of us here likely think of letting go as the language of Zen Buddhism. Non-attachment is central to Buddhist thought and practice. In Buddhism, craving, our desire, is the root of our suffering. To learn to let go is to learn to find peace and contentment, to see life as it is. In Judaism, letting go has to do with forgiveness. The practices of repentance and atonement allow individuals to make amends for past injuries. To forgive and to be forgiven is a way to release and be released, to let go of the past. In Islam, the practice of letting go has to do with surrender to God. In fact, one of the meanings of the word “Islam” is surrender. Spiritual surrender is the essence of Islam. For Muslims, surrender means giving up control and recognizing our connection to and dependence on God, the source of life.

In our Unitarian Universalist tradition, we also practice letting go. One of the central ways we practice letting go is through openness. We strive to keep our hearts open through compassion and tolerance. We strive to keep our minds open to new ideas and to ways of practicing religion that are different from our own. Our commitment is to strive to be respectful of other cultures and traditions and to keep an open mind about matters of faith.

When the congregations that coordinate the Interfaith Thanksgiving service began discussing holding it at the Islamic Center, I was both enthusiastic and uncertain. I’ve visited mosques before – several when I was in India. But I had only visited the mosque in Reading once and I wasn’t familiar with the customs of the Islamic Center. Our coordinating team had several conversations about what was expected, which was very educational and helpful.

Since the mosque in Reading is a more liberal one, we learned that while men and women would need to sit separately, they could sit side by side for this occasion, rather than men in front and women in the back. I felt better about that. But I have to admit judgments about “separate but equal” came to mind. I knew we would need to remove our shoes for worship. That didn’t seem to be a stretch for most of us. A lot of people have gone to ashrams or yoga centers where they removed their shoes. I even have friends who ask their guests to remove their shoes when entering their homes. The women were expected to wear head scarves out of respect. This was the most challenging part for me. If the men needed to cover their heads too, I would have had fewer or different questions.

It did help me to hear my colleague Rabbi Michelson say at one our meetings that he always wears a head covering. To be honest, I like the idea of wearing special clothing or covering the head as a way of entering into prayer and worship. I wear a stole as a symbol of my position as an ordained minister and as a reminder to me that I am in sacred space in the presence of the holy. It evokes reverence and represents beauty. And of course there are many different traditions and practices related to head coverings and attire in the world’s religions. Sometimes the leader wears a head covering. Sometimes the women. Sometimes the men and the women.

The thing is, for me as a Westerner and feminist, I find it hard not to associate the requirement of a head covering with the subjugation of women – unless the men are required to wear one too. I realized I would need to set aside these ideas in order to be a good guest in someone else’s religious home. To complicate matters, I was also the preacher – an unusual position for a woman to be in at a mosque. I was definitely nudged out of my comfort zone that night.

Writing about the spiritual practice of letting go, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat said:

Letting go of fixed ideas about the way things are or how people are supposed to behave is one step, and it's not easy. Take some cherished idea of yours and try to change it; you will see that the resistance is very strong. The mind likes the security that comes with long-held ideas. But the spiritual life requires us to constantly examine and even revise our ideas. We learn to reframe our views especially about our status and superiority over others. (“Letting Go,” www.spiritualityandpractice.com/practices/features.php?id=18407)

Indeed. At our best, we manage to do that. Other times, our focus is more on how we want things to be and our efforts to control how they are. As much as I pride myself on being open-minded, I have some pretty strong opinions. To begin to see things differently means allowing myself to move forward with more trust in what Beattie calls “the magic in letting go.” Learning to be more open isn’t about agreement. I made a choice to be in relationship, to stop judging and live in uncertainty and unfamiliarity, to simply not quite know.

This is really hard. If we could do this well, if we could take a long honest look at ourselves and our situation, and be willing to give up what we already think we know, we’d all be the most spiritually evolved people ever. We’d be a room full of enlightened beings. But being able to acknowledge that we have prejudices and fears when it comes to new ideas and people who are different from us, that other religions sometimes make us uncomfortable, that we find ourselves sitting in judgment of others thinking we are morally superior, or that we aren’t always as open-minded as we claim to be is humbling – and honest. It makes us human.

The paradox is that when we let go – whether we are letting go of a way of seeing the world or a person we are clinging to - we sometimes get what it was we wanted all along – like the old man and the island. Sometimes it takes a long time, as it did with him. Sometimes something better than we could have imagined happens. And sometimes what we thought we wanted doesn’t happen at all. Sometimes we learn something new.

What I discovered when pushed beyond my comfort zone was that I felt respected by both the Muslim men and the women at the Islamic Center – as well as the others there. But what surprised me was that I felt connected to the Muslim women in a way I didn’t expect. I spoke with one woman about our shared passion for Rumi’s poetry and another about her grandmother’s cheesecake recipe and another about her struggle to get her hijab pinned. The stuff of being human.

American Rabbi and author Milton Steinberg wrote, “This then is the great truth of human existence. One must not hold life too precious. One must always be prepared to let it go.” (A Believing Jew, 1951). And American poet Mary Oliver wrote that “to live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal, to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”

The only way is to let it go. In the end, we will all be asked to let go of many things, including our own lives. How much do we need to let go of? Like Melody Beattie, I’m not certain, but maybe everything. What I am certain about is that our letting go will set us free. May we learn to let go. May our letting go enable us to connect more deeply to the source of life and love, which many of us know as God.

Amen. Blessed be.