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Sermons: “Getting Through the Night

Bob and Addie Polk had moved into the neighborhood in 1970, when the little houses were relatively new, and through the years they had been friendly with the neighbors. After her husband died, Addie kept more to herself, increasingly limited by declining health in older age. Bob Dillon and his wife next door did stop in to visit with her regularly, and helped her a little with the yard work, but still, the house fell prey to deferred maintenance and came to look pretty shabby.

It was a fine spring day when the sheriff's deputies came. They waited outside for awhile waiting for the representative from Countrywide Home Loans. Bob Dillon joined them, curious about what was going on. He was surprised to learn that Addie's house had been foreclosed. Ninety years old and hard of hearing, she often didn't answer her phone or even her doorbell. She had no children or other relatives in town—the town was Akron, OH, and this is all based on a story by Peter Boyer in the New Yorker magazine from last November 24. Addie drove herself to the grocery store, and every Sunday to the Antioch Baptist Church nearby. She was independent.

The person from Countrywide never showed up, and the deputies were ready to leave when they heard a noise from inside the house. They began to be concerned that Addie might have fallen or something. The neighbor, Bob Dillon, thought he knew a way to get into the house, and the deputies encouraged him to go ahead. He found her lying in bed with a gun beside her. She had shot herself as the deputies waited to carry out the eviction.

The story has a slightly better ending than you might think, but still not great. Addie was taken to the hospital, where she recovered from the gunshot wound. The foreclosure was canceled, and as it turned out, she went from the hospital to a nursing home rather than returning to her house. The foreclosure drama took place on October 1 of last year; she died peacefully in early April. Addie was reported early on as saying from her hospital bed, “It was a crazy thing to do.”

Yes, it was a crazy thing to do. She had gotten tangled up in financial finagling to supplement the very small income she was left with after her husband died. And she hadn't talked it over with anyone. The article did not quote the pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church, but I can assure you that she or he would have been deeply saddened never to have heard a word about all this trouble until it came out in the papers. Pastors may not be able to provide the material help people need in tough economic times, but we are able to provide encouragement and help people untangle their thinking about what they might feel are embarrassing or even shameful private matters. Getting through that feeling that this is a private situation that has to be kept close is really important to finding a way through. The way may not be easy, and it's really a good thing to have some people on your side.

Major financial trouble is very complex for people. Not only are there practical issues about keeping a roof over your head and food on the table, but there are issues of identity. Who am I if I have to give up my home? Who am I now that I am not employed in my profession? Who am I after applying for hundreds of jobs in my field and finding nothing? Then there's the whole litany -- People in our family don't go bankrupt. People in our family don't go on unemployment. People in our family and so on and so forth. We understand who we are in terms of our work and also to a certain extent in terms of our possessions and our ability to provide for our families.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assures us that getting through tough economic times can be hazardous to your health, even to the point of making suicide look like an attractive option.

Our faith tradition offers some guidance for dealing with the stress that comes from financial difficulties. For one thing, we are a people who believe in science and the scientific method. That means making observations—gathering data-- and then analyzing what you find. In the case of financial difficulty, you'll want to notice what is happening in the realm of money, debt, and possessions, of course. But you'll also want to notice if you have any of the warning signs of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or compulsive behaviors such as over-eating, excessive gambling, over-spending, or over-sexing.

The Health and Human Services experts suggest being on the lookout for: persistent sadness or crying, excessive anxiety, lack of sleep or constant fatigue, excessive irritability or anger, increased use of alcohol, inappropriate use of medications, increased use of illegal drugs, difficulty paying attention or staying focused, apathy, or just not being able to function as well as usual at work, school, or home. If you have had a weakness for some compulsive behavior in the past, you'll need to watch for that behavior at this stressful time, of course. All of us are different under stress, but many of us turn to ways of dealing with it that are just not at all helpful.

Anxiety itself has physical aspects: a pounding heart, sweaty hands, headaches, indigestion. An anxious person may hold their breath or breathe shallowly. You can help your anxiety simply by remembering to breathe deeply and slowly, but it may take more than that.

So our spiritual tradition says “notice what's happening.” Don't so much fret as make lists. Be systematic about what there is to be concerned about and decide what your next steps need to be. If you are getting in your own way, regard yourself with compassion. There are reasons why you are acting as you are, even if what you are doing might ultimately be counterproductive. Take time to sit with your feelings about the situation rather than rushing around trying to make things better. Allow a sense of perspective to enter your thoughts—recognize that this is happening in the midst of a life that still has goodness and hope in it. If you start in on worrying over and over, remind yourself: “wait—I already worried about this before.” Once is enough! If you are a person who talks things over to work through your troubles, be alert about how much talking you are doing—it's the same as fretting if you just go on and on. Make lists, and remember what you've worried about before.

Our tradition says, move toward the sources of goodness and hope. That may mean prayer for you, or it may direct you toward the actual live humans who share your life, or both. Evoking the spirit of our spiritual ancestor, Henry David Thoreau, you might want take time for long walks or do other physical exercise that allows your mind to settle into a deeper place where the awfulness of what's happening just now looks like a passing dark cloud. It's still awful, but it's not the only thing there is. Once you determine it's not the end of the world, though, you have to face it. Putting it in perspective doesn't mean you can run away.

There's the joke about the person of faith who is trapped at home by rising flood waters (I've heard this told with both male and female protagonist—take your pick). Someone comes by with a rope that's anchored to the shore and says, “hold on, and we'll walk to safety.” The person declines, saying “God will provide”. The waters rise, and someone comes by in a rowboat as our person is looking out the second-floor window. “Climb in, and I'll take you to shore.” But no, “God will provide.” And finally, as the person is sitting on the roof, a helicopter comes and lowers a ladder. The person waves them off, “God will provide.” So you can imagine the scene when our person reaches the pearly gates of heaven, “Why didn't God save me?” “We sent you a rope, a rowboat, and a helicopter, what more did you want?” Ours is not a faith that offers to save you unless you do your part. You need to manage your anxiety, AND you need to find the rope, rowboat, or helicopter you need.

In the spirit of science, a cool-headed analysis of what's really happening leads to discovery to solutions. Maybe you really do need to sell your house or declare bankruptcy. Maybe getting a roommate would work. Maybe moving in with relatives for awhile is an answer. Maybe you need to find another kind of job. Maybe that means finding a way to take some training in another field. Finding a way to face your options fearlessly and truthfully is in the tradition of our faith. For some of us, the answer comes in careful analysis of data. For others, it comes by intuition as the options are spread out in general form in front of you. Be yourself, and be truthful with yourself.

As much as we are self-reliant and scientific-minded, we are a people who believe in the wisdom of other humans. Reach out to others. Find the resources that can help you with your material situation. When you are anxious, it may be hard to reach out in trust, but reach out anyway, and keep in mind the things you need to learn about these others in order to trust them. Give them a chance. Find a support group if your anxiety has generated other problems in your life—it's true, when you most need the services of mental health professionals, you may not have any insurance and your income may be limited to unemployment benefits, but if you can manage it, get the professional help you need.

So our tradition teaches that it's important to manage worry in healthful ways: slow down and notice compassionately what the situation really is, begin to get a sense of perspective. And breathe. Breathe into the stress and anxiety and let it go. In our devotion to truth, we say look fearlessly and compassionately at the situation and the possible solutions. Reach out to others to develop your thinking, because when something is a really big deal for you, it's really likely that you aren't seeing clearly. Those others may not be right, either, but talking it over will help you think.

Remember always that you are not alone. Addie Polk was as alone as she was in her house facing foreclosure at least partly because of her own choices. Yet there is a sense in which she was not alone—there were kind people next door, a faith community that had been her church home for forty years, and a group of long-time women friends who gathered every Sunday for lunch and laughter after church. And she was old—the very elderly can be excused for many failings. But those of us who are not in our nineties, when disaster strikes, it's time to turn to the resources of faith, and right at the heart of our faith is the confidence that other humans can help.

So there you have it. Cultivate calmness and courage with meditation, prayer, making lists, and talking things over. Be analytical: seek the truth about the situation and your options for dealing with it. Seek guidance both from the deep truth within and from actual people you know and trust. Grab hold of the rope, jump into the rowboat, climb the ladder into the helicopter, and survive. You are more than your job and more than your most important possession. Respect the worth and dignity of every person, including yourself. Live life, even in the darkest times. And you will make it through the night.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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