Monday, October 3, 2011

Sermon - "Shiva's Gift"

Shiva’s Gift
Maybe for the first time since I moved to Sothern California five years ago, I feel like we are having an actual autumn last week. No doubt the Santa Anna winds will come and dry roast us in about a month, but for now, I’m reminded of jumping in piles of leaves, hot cocoa, and the always’ changing seasons of our lives.

Throughout the month of October, we will be talking about death in different ways here at church. Today we are talking about death, not in the personal sense so much as the broader, abstract sense. Today we are talking about destructive forces in the universe, whether it is in nature, in us as individuals, or in the cosmic balance of Hindu deities, death plays too big of a role to ignore.

And if we take a couple of steps back from it, we begin to see death as a necessary and amazing piece of the great cycle of life. In the cycle of the seasons the balance of life and death and renewal aren’t so disturbing. The chilling time of Autumn comes around each year. Many of the plants we love die, the leaves on some of our trees shrivel and fall. It’s a season consumed with death, followed by a cold and dark time. But the cold and darkness give way to new life in the Spring, year after year. It’s just the way it goes and we accept that.

But it’s not just in the passing of seasons where we see the cycle of destruction and renewal. Death is a big part of just about every piece of nature that we celebrate. Even the piece of nature that is responsible for our existence, evolution. Evolution is really built on a series of countless destructions, death upon death in order to bring about new potentials for life. It’s grim, but it’s true. An innumerable number of deaths occurred to make way for every single adaptation that made evolution possible.

That reality was really hammered home for me when I saw the film “Creation” that came out a couple of years ago. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it stuck with me, so it must have had something going for it. It was about the life of Charles Darwin. A huge part of the film was Darwin’s personal challenges and illness. And interspersed with this psychological drama were dream sequences. They were rather grotesque dreams of natural selection in process. They were scenes of predators devouring prey, and the death and decay of animals, and the ants and maggots that fed off of the remains. Lets just say, it’s not a movie to watch after dinner.

Initially these images were off-putting. But they were also deeply effective. Sitting there celebrating the most significant discovery in the history of biology, celebrating the miracle of evolution, is the grim depiction of what evolution really required. Death up death until one or two organisms escaped their harsh fate. For four billion years, species developed minute ways of improving themselves. Natural selection, evolution, the interdependent web of life as we celebrate it, is sustained in equal parts by and interdependent web of death.

There are other more tangible ways that Mother Nature deals in death and destruction. Just this past week a colleague who works on the issue of climate change gave me a new perspective on the storms that have begun to ravage our planet.

We were talking about how reluctant humans are to change their lifestyles and the way we impact the environment. The changing weather patterns, the melting of polar ice, and rise of sea levels, these dangers are no longer scientific supposition. They are reality.

So this colleague was talking and he said something that gave me pause. He said that Mother Nature will do whatever she needs to, until we get the message. Mother Nature, source of life, the interconnected web, will thrash the globe with storms, drowning some areas and scorching others. Mother Nature will send destruction, as much as she needs to, until we get the message. She will fight us back, and our odds of winning are not very good.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think these storms and floods are God’s message to this group of people or that group of people for their moral shortcomings. It’s not that kind of message. I don’t believe that God reaches out to smite entire communities Old Testament style.

But I do believe that the earth is crying out, and beginning to literally fight back with incredible force and destruction. Call it mother nature, call it the planet earth, call it the biosphere, it is beginning to fight back with a level of force and destruction that may be the only thing that will shake us out of our ways, and preserve life in the long run. Mother Nature’s slap in the face may be our saving grace.

Talking about death and destruction isn’t something that we do often in church, or in America for that matter. But Hinduism, with its diversity of deities and ideas, has a little gem to offer in this discussion. In fact they have a whole God dedicated to what we are talking about today.

Shiva. Shiva is a major deity, definitely in the top five. What we often see as evil: death, decay, hatred, destruction, these are all a part of the universe and part of our human experience. And rather than rejecting these hard realities and labeling them as evil, many Hindus celebrate them in one of their most significant gods.

In images like on your Order of Service, he is represented as a handsome young man immersed in deep meditation or dancing upon Apasmara, the demon of ignorance in his manifestation of Nataraja, the Lord of the dance, goodness, humility, and every good quality a human should have. It is said that He looks like an eternal youth because of his authority over death, rebirth and immortality.

I was interested to find especially with the parallels with the forces of nature, that Shiva is understood to be the same person as Rudra. Rudra is the the god of the roaring storms, a fierce, destructive deity. In fact today’s Shiva probably developed from this god of storms that was written about in some of the oldest texts of Hinduism, the Rig Veda, dating back as far as 1700 BC. Shiva was and is the God of the storm, but he is more than just destruction.

Just as I mentioned the cycle and balance of the seasons, Fall Winter, Spring and Summer, Shiva’s destructive force is also part of a cosmic balance. Lord Shiva is the destroyer of the world, following the god Brahma, the creator of all things, and Vishnu the god who’s role it is to preserves. And of course Shiva is always ready to bring back the destruction and chaos to get things moving again.

But Shiva’s propensity for destruction isn’t just about the material world. It’s also about the internal spiritual world. While Shiva is responsible for death and destruction in the universe, Shiva is also the God that yogis call on in their journey to destroy the ego. They call on Shiva, the destroyer, to come to help them destroy the false sense of self, that keeps them separated from the great oneness of being. Shiva helps the yogi, and helps us when we acknowledge death, to loosen the obsession with ourselves, with this life and all our everyday needs, to look at a bigger picture. All that has a beginning by necessity must have an end. With his reminders of death and destruction, the impermanence of life, Shiva reminds us that our lives also are impermanent, and helps us to destroy the sense of ego that distracts us from deeper connections.

Beyond destroying a sense of ego, Shiva is also helps break old habits and attachments. Just like the cycle of nature and the cosmic cycle of creation and destruction, Shiva brings helps destroy old habits to make new life possible for us. Thus the power of destruction associated with Lord Shiva has great purifying power, both on a more personal level when problems make us see reality more clearly, as on a more universal level.

Although he is the great cosmic destroyer, Lord Shiva is the Lord of mercy and compassion, because he protects devotees by destroying the forces of lust, greed, and anger. Shiva actually means auspicious, kind, or gracious one. It’s not what typically comes to mind when we think of the God who symbolizes destruction in the universe, is it. Auspicious, kind, gracious one…

We know that nature can be destructive, and the Hindu pantheon makes room for the destructive inclination of the universe. But the last kind of destructive force I want to explore is more personal. I want to talk about a destructive force that is scarier, and certainly more mysterious than seasons or Shiva. I want to talk a little bit about the destructive force that rests within each one of us. It’s in there for each one of us. For some it has been ignored and denied. For others it has been nurtured and heightened perhaps too much. But each one of us has a seed for destruction within.

It reminds me a little bit of a story that is attributed to Cherokee Indians. I don’t know how true to the culture the story is, but I have heard it several times. It goes something like this:

One evening an old Cherokee man told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One wolf is anger, jealousy, superiority, pride, aggression and ego.

The other wolf is serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, and compassion

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Well, grandfather, which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee told him, ‘The one you feed.’

I love this story as an example of cultivating character traits. The more energy we invest in certain feelings, the more they become manifest in our world. We can spend our time and energy in greed and anger, or we can invest in love and compassion.

But in light of today’s topic and the occasional necessity for destruction and aggression in the world, I’m inclined to find a different way. Perhaps instead of feeding only one wolf, and starving the other, we should do our best to tame both of them. After all both of these inclinations are necessary in the world. Fortunately most of us live in an environment where aggression and destruction aren’t called for on a daily basis. But we are not so far removed from a world in which that aggression was necessary for survival. It was eat or get eaten, kill or be killed.

My point is, perhaps both of these wolves have something to offer in our lives. There is a time for compassion, but there is also a time for defending oneself. For everything thing there is a season.

I’m going to make a leap with this metaphor of the two wolves into the realm of science. It is commonly believed by evolutionary biologists today that the domesticated dog most likely evolved from the Grey Wolf. That evolution and our deeply rooted relationship with dogs occurred for or one very compelling reason, and it’s not chew toys.

Both humans and wolves are social hunters. Unlike nearly every other predator on the planet, humans, and wolves hunt their prey in groups. And there is reason to believe that wolves would gather around and scavenge the remains of human hunts, to the point that these two creatures, learned to hunt together. Both their aggressive capability and their inclination toward sharing allowed them to thrive. The balance of creation and destruction was the key to their mutual survival.

And the aggressive inclination isn’t just there for the hunters of our tribe. Women, perhaps even more than men are reluctant to conjure up the destructive forces within. No, not me. But I challenge any mother here, or any mother anywhere, to allow something hurtful to happen to their child. The emotional and physical response of a mother protecting a child can, and should evoke an untold force of potential aggression.

We do all have two wolves within us. One wolf is anger, jealousy, pride, aggression and ego. The other wolf is serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, and compassion. And as scary as it may be to face up to, we rely on both of those forces in time. Creation and destruction, a sacred balance, in the earth, in God, in our hearts.

As we head deeper into the fall, and as we head into a month of discussion death here at UUFLB, I want to challenge us to embrace some of the scary stuff. Embrace the darkness, embrace the cycles of life and death, embrace destruction and decay. Because these are part of life. They are part of us.


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