Minister’s Reflections on ‘Holding On and Letting Go’ – from the service on 24th October 2021

Having recently announced that I will be stepping down from my role as minister at the end of January – due to some long term health issues – thoughts around ‘letting go’ are uppermost in my mind; letting go of a role that has given much satisfaction for the last 12 years, letting go of this Chapel community I’ve been a part of for 25 years (though not severing ties completely) and the prospect of letting go of the place Rob and I have called home for 14 years. At some time in life – maybe many times – we each have to ‘let go’ – either through choice or because circumstances demand it; letting go of the physical reality of loved ones who die, or children who fly the nest, or the ending of a relationship; leaving a job, or laying aside a role, or cause; moving house and clearing out possessions; perhaps letting go of grudges, mistakes, unhelpful habits, or the way we view the world; or pondering the ultimate letting go we will all have to face – our mortality…

Autumn is the season of letting go – as flowers drop petals, seeds are blown on the wind, and trees cast off their leaves. David M. Horst in our 1st reading recalls the sight of a single leaf – the last remaining leaf – clinging to a poplar tree – one autumn day, many years ago in his youth. He describes feeling a kinship with the leaf, with its message of ‘Hang on. Never give up. Don’t let go’. The leaf was not ready to let go – and neither was he – though he realised both he and the leaf ‘would, in time, let go’ (https://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditation/last-leaf ) Perhaps you identify with this last leaf – with a tendency to cling on until the very last? Or maybe you are more like the leaves that have already let go – embracing the winds of change…?

Falling leafFor each of us it will be different – depending on our personality, upbring and life experiences. Some people find it relatively easy to let go of a home and possessions, but harder when it comes to people or cherished dreams. Perhaps for others it’s vice versa. I find it hard to let go – full-stop! I get attached to things AND people AND Jobs AND places. And I’m not keen on change, so I can relate to that last leaf hanging on for dear life – until circumstances tug me off the metaphorical branch.  I look with wonder on those who seem able to let go easily. Some people whose homes have been destroyed by fire, flood, or earth-quake – after losing all their possessions and livelihoods – display a measure of equanimity that startles me. And I’m dumbfounded by those who seem able to let go of their very lives with a measure of serenity. I recall visiting a dear friend and minister colleague, in hospital with cancer 7 years ago. She knew she was dying. Deep down I think I knew too – but wasn’t ready to admit it. I sat there, as she talked on her mobile – calmly, matter-of-factly – to a friend who was helping clear her flat; what to do with her various possessions – who should have her favourite coat – her special books. I wanted to shout out (but didn’t) how can you be so calm at having to let go of all this? And why aren’t you putting up more of a fight and clinging onto – in the words of Mary Oliver to “your one wild and precious life”?  I only hope I can be so serene when I’m facing my last days – though I fear I won’t be. But maybe that’s ok too; in the words of Dylan Thomas to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light” – and before that biggest of all letting goes – to protest, whilst at the same time practising letting go of smaller things – including possessions.  Right now, as we consider moving home in due course – I’m reminded of my strong attachments to ‘stuff’ – and each object I reluctantly put on the ‘give-away’ pile is a tiny victory in letting go.

Much as we know there are times in life when we need to let go – sometimes there’s a case for holding on. Rev Sarah Tinker explores this in a sermon from 2013. I offer an extract:

“…I reckon you can make a pretty good case for certain kinds of holding on. I appreciate all the people who’ve held onto me when I felt myself going under. There’s a kind of holding on that can, quite literally saved lives… I appreciate all the people who have held onto causes that they knew to be right – that kind of holding on – against the prevailing messages of their day – allows a society to develop – that kind of holding on abolished slavery, ended capital punishment, gave women the vote, and in our own time – equal marriage for people in same sex partnerships… There’s an inner kind of holding on that gives you the strength to continue even when it seems like everything is against you – this is the tenacity that climbs mountains, wins races, overcomes obstacles in seeking your life path…. And there’s a holding on that you might call commitment – to a friendship, a marriage, to a church community – a holding on that keeps relationships going when the going gets tough, a holding on that gets you up in the morning to come to church or to help a neighbour, or the myriad other ways that we might be involved in life. So we’re not saying that holding on is bad and letting go is good, because life as we all know tends to be more complicated than that…”

Sarah Tinker continues: ”But of all the spiritual teachings I’ve been given over the years, it is the key teaching of Buddhism on letting go of attachment that has challenged me most. This is partly to do with my nature, but also to do with the era in which we live. In the western world in the 21st century most of us simply have too much of just about everything…. We are the product of capitalism’s endless search for new customers… The Buddha spoke of the human desire to cling, to hold on, as a source of our suffering in this world and taught the value of letting go. But in the 5th century BC he could not have dreamt of the possessions we now take for granted nor the struggles that result because of them. I have had to clear the possessions of someone who’s died in recent years…You will know the poignancy of such a process – how important it can feel to honour the person who has died through carefully parting with their possessions. It can be a process of recognition and love, but for some it can become a source of family friction and pain. The Buddha would remind us too that letting go and holding on relates both to the material world and to the world of ideas, the world of our minds – our thoughts, our hopes and our wishes – as they relate to our feelings and emotions, our relationships, our physical bodies, and our spiritual lives. According to Buddhist teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, ‘…To let go means to give up coercing, resisting or struggling, in exchange for something more powerful and wholesome which comes out of allowing things to be as they are without getting caught up in your attraction to or rejection of them… It’s akin to letting your palm open to unhand something you have been holding onto.’ “ 

Using that analogy of the open palm – for times when it just feels too hard to let something or someone go – there’s a meditation practice which I find helpful. You imagine holding a small bird in our hands – representing that which you are attached to. You hold the ‘bird’ firmly enough to keep it secure and safe – but not so tightly that you crush it. In time, the ‘bird’ may fly off – you will need to let it go eventually – but for now, you hold onto it – gently, without grasping…

Bird in the hand

Both holding on and letting go make up a life – in the words of one of our well loved Unitarian songs ‘Roots hold me close; wings set me free’ (Spirit of Life’ by Carolyn McDade)…. which reminds me of a poem by Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks):

Your hand opens and closes, and opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open,            you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,                        the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birdwings.”                            

Spiritual teachers across many times and traditions tell us that the way to true happiness and fulfilment is to be non-attached to things and willing to let go of what we have – yet they also recognise the all too human struggle to put this into practice. In the Gospels, a rich man comes to Jesus and asks what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The man replies he’s done this since his youth. Jesus then tells him to “sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The rich man is shocked and goes away sad, for he has many possessions. I identify with that man – unable to let go of his comfortable lifestyle.  And yet in Mark’s account of the story – we are told that Jesus looks at the rich man with lovenot condemnation – which I find comforting, even as I am challenged.

In terms of the huge challenges our world faces right now – some might say the last thing we should be doing is letting go. Well certainly we should not let go of caring or trying to make a difference. But we must let go of the mistaken belief that the earth’s resources are infinite and that we can continue living as we always have. COP26 may just decide our planet’s fate, and I confess I’m not holding out much hope. I’m tempted to despair about the climate crisis and get frustrated that I don’t have time and energy to do more. But frustration and despair deplete me further. I can’t save the planet – none of us can alone – but together – just maybe… So I will try to do the little I can to the best of my capacity and let go in trust that however much humanity seems to be screwing things up, beyond my limited comprehension there is a greater power for good which I call God, acting in and through our world.

The big letting goes in life can feel like a leap into the unknown and very scary – however much we profess to have faith. There’s the story of a man who falls from a cliff and just manages to catch hold of a thin root growing out of the rocks. He’s hanging on for dear life dangling above certain death and in desperation cries out to the heavens, “Help! Is there anybody up there?” A voice responds “Yes my son, I hear you. Let go of the branch and I will catch you.” The man thinks for a minute, looks down at the treacherous rocks below and shouts, “Is there anybody else there?”

It’s human nature to fear change – but as Rev. Art Lester says of this story: “The truth is we don’t know what happened to this chap if he lets go of the root. We can speculate, but until we are at the point of letting go ourselves, we cannot know. What we can do is listen to those who practise letting go while they lived, the heroes of consciousness from all traditions who spent their lives on that cliff. What they all seem to be saying is the fleeting and insecure nature of life is not tragic, but paradoxically wonderful. They don’t say they will catch you when you get let go … but that there is a reality that underlies the hanging, dangling temporary security of our projects, and that reality can be encountered only by letting go of false hopes. Far from swooping down to remove you from the peril of the slender root, they will dare you with love to go there again and again until the truth is experienced. And they would tell you this – you have already let go, whether you know it or not. You did it when you first drew breath, and you will do it with your last and this is what life is all about…” (extract from a sermon by Art Lester – 2001)

Seed head  Sometimes we hold on – other times we let go – gracefully or grudgingly – and life is a dance between these two. I find the wisdom of letting go in all its myriad forms beautifully expressed by Mary Oliver in her poem ‘In Blackwater Woods’. After describing seeds being blown from the reeds in the autumn and floating off on the wind, she ends:

“To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; hold it against your own bones like your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”

May these words be true for us in these times of change and throughout the whole of our lives,

In Faith and Hope, Sheena