Sermon #38 (29th September 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
Our theme of the month, for September, has been ‘Moving On and Staying Put’. The last few Sundays have mostly been given over to considering the joys of movement – considering what we can learn from travelling, or going on pilgrimage, and wilfully wandering following the way of the open road – and reflecting on times in our lives when we have voluntarily upped sticks, walked away, left the familiar behind, and sought a change of scene. Jeannene spoke a few weeks ago about those times when people move on – or are moved on – against their will. Those whose freedom to choose is constrained by economic and political factors. And today we’re going to briefly consider the virtues of ‘Staying Put’: making a positive choice not to move – to stay in one place and put down roots – in one home, or community, or job – instead of actively seeking novelty, change, or as Alix Klingenberg put it, another PLOT TWIST! – something that seems increasingly counter-cultural in a society which (shaped by the demands of global capitalism) discourages us at every turn from developing lasting ties.
I don’t know about you, but the last few years have brought a few more changes and plot twists than I bargained for, at both a political and a personal level. It’s been an unsettling time. And in times like these I particularly value those things which are constant, reliable, and stable in life.
Personally, my home, and my neighbourhood, is of huge significance to me. It’s almost part of me. I’ve lived in the same council house on the Isle of Dogs since I was 5 – actually it must have been 4 – one of my earliest memories is of having my 5th birthday party there. I am thoroughly rooted in place. My dad, his dad, and his dad were all born on the Island, within walking distance of where we still live. Dad’s childhood best friend, Brian, still lives just a couple of blocks away and, each weekday morning, Brian gets up early to pick up a copy of the Metro from the station to post through our letterbox. The two of them are in their eighties and, between them, they are the keepers of local history. And I know – London being what it is, rents and house prices being what they are, gentrification having pushed people to the fringes, and truly affordable social housing being shamefully scarce – that this is a pretty unusual state of affairs these days. Few, now, get to put down roots like we have. I’m lucky. The world of work has changed too, for many, becoming ever more insecure, with short-term (and zero hours) contracts requiring people to relocate frequently as they go where the jobs are. Also there’s a pressure to keep seeking promotion, changing things up, for the sake of your CV. People can be penalised for – or prevented from – sticking in one role and making it their own. There’s a constant ‘churn’ as people come and go. Staying put, in London, is no longer the norm.
[And, just to be clear, this is not to say we all should stay put! Just that ‘moving on’ is not inherently more virtuous than ‘staying put’ (yet the world we live in seems to push us towards constant motion)].
It seems to me that many of the spiritual messages we hear also emphasise the importance of embracing change, cultivating non-attachment, and not clinging to things (or people, or places). It can seem there’s a spiritual imperative not only to go with the flow, but to actively seek change. I can end up wondering if I’ll be judged as spiritually failing, somehow, for being so attached to a particular place, a certain community, or the comfort of familiar surroundings, regular habits and rituals. Alix Klingenberg, in our second reading, gave us a couple of hints as to how our church communities,
our congregations, might help us deal with this tension between moving on and staying put. First off, just by belonging to a particular congregation – part of a larger religious tradition – we are in a sense putting down roots, claiming a bit of regularity, making a heart-home. Even if the rest of our life is full of more change – more plot twists! – than we would have chosen, or than we think we can handle, turning up at church week-in week-out gives us some stability. And secondly, it’s the sense of safety and security this regularity gives us that – quite paradoxically – can often provide the platform for inner change and growth, as Klingenberg puts it:
‘It’s easy [as church leaders] to get bored with our own consistency, simplicity, and predictability… even if it’s exactly what people need… I don’t think we should switch things up just to switch things up… When we can gently hold things steady, the changes come instead from within; that’s where the real growth happens.’
Even if, in some sense, we stay put – we stick it out with a particular place, community, or tradition – there is no escaping the movement and change, inner & outer, that will come to us unbidden anyway. There’s another notable and historic figure we can turn to for support in this matter: St. Benedict. One of the three vows which Benedictine monks and nuns make, in following the Rule of St. Benedict, is a vow of stability. For them, stability means picking one monastery, and sticking to it. Rejecting the temptation to constantly run onwards in search of a ‘perfect’ community. In other words, staying put. The Catholic writer, Colin O’Brien, has this insight on what stability brings to the life of a Benedictine:
‘The freedom that stability provides not only encourages but necessitates change, growth, and conversion. An analogy for this is to think of the monk as being like a tree, rather than a rock. He is “planted” within the community, in a particular place, the monastery. In order to flourish, however, he must grow and adapt to the way of life of the community and he must continue to grow as the other members of the community grow. He is not a rock placed there that remains unchanging. Stability paradoxically encourages change.’
This echoes the ‘Tree’ poem we heard in the meditation earlier. The tree is rooted, immobile. Yet it is blown and shaken by gales, visited by birds and travellers, & still growing, going deeper, flourishing. And it echoes the hymn ‘Spirit of Life’ with its refrain ‘roots hold me close, wings set me free’. Perhaps each of us has to find that balance for ourselves, between rootedness, and freedom.
In an article titled ‘In Praise of Staying Put: Benedictine Stability in Today’s World’, Sarah Puryear, an Episcopalian minister, reflects on some of the spiritual dividends of greater stability of place:
‘As I’ve got older I have found it increasingly exhausting to reinvent all of the patterns and habits of my daily life in a new space over and over again. In fact, having to do so has been an obstacle in my spiritual life; so much of my energy has been taken up with figuring out a new space, a new home, a new neighbourhood and city, energy that might otherwise be spent deepening my “muscle memory” of repeatedly turning to prayer in the same place… Surely I am in some way the poorer for having my attention divided by all my activity and movement.’
I wonder if there are ways in which each of us could cultivate greater stability in our lives? Ways in which we could feel more rooted, more at home in the world. A sense of belonging. Maybe we could think about the place where we live, or a place where we might hope to settle. Maybe it’s not where we live right now but a place of origin we are connected to and return to. Maybe it’s a community – perhaps this congregation or another group you belong to – where you have decided to stay put, make a commitment, and give your life some rhythm and regularity.
On the front of the order of service there’s a short but powerful quotation from Simone Weil: ‘To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.’
As this short reflection comes to a close, I’m going to invite you to take a moment to ponder your own personal sense of rootedness. Where do you already feel rooted, or where would you like to put down roots? Maybe a geographic place, or a community, or group – interpret this as broadly as you like. I hope you were all given a pen or pencil as you came in (or perhaps you have one already).
On the back of your little yellow slip of paper there should be a post-it in the shape of a tree. And at some point in the remainder of the service I invite you to write something on it which reminds you of your personal sense of rootedness, and affirms the places and ways in which you have already chosen to ‘stay put’, the sources of stability in your life. OR if you don’t feel particularly rooted, and that sort of stability is something you’re seeking, perhaps you could write something on the tree to denote a place or way in which you might now choose to ‘stay put’, to put down roots.
Please do interpret that question in whichever way you see fit. I encourage you to tuck that little tree away in your bus pass, wallet or purse, somewhere that you’ll see it from time to time.
And in the week ahead – whatever changes and plot twists life may throw at us next – may we each tune in to that sense of rootedness and stability whenever we can, in the hope and trust that it may give us the courage to face the days to come. Amen.
Reflection by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this sermon is available: