Here's to Life: The Bitter and The Sweet
Updated: Jun 30, 2021
By Rev. Ms. Denise D. Tracy
Presented by Omni-University
( This is an edited excerpt of a sermon entitled "Bittersweet".)
Matthew 6:25 KJV Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on, Is not the life more than meat and rainment?
When I was a child I looked at my parents as if they were the smartest people I knew- and they were. Both of them were working full-time, raising three children, managing schools, vacations, and volunteer activities. They rebuilt our lives after we lost our home in a flood. My younger sister was born with epilepsy and they handled that. I was diagnosed with what was believed to be a terminal kidney disease and they dealt with that, too. As an adult, I look back at my childhood and realize that they must have had feelings about all this yet, they shouldered on, so I never knew it, Now, I know the truth: Life Is.
As my own children have grown, I have listened to each of them repeat the refrain I once so boldly said, “I can’t wait until I am an adult. I can do whatever I want. Then, I'll be really happy.” Anyone who enters adulthood having said that is faced with accepting and understanding the complexity of life. I am not unhappy but, sometimes I do find the complexity of adulthood exhausting. So, I asked myself," What kind of framework can I build around this complexity so that I can maintain a balanced perspective.
One of my favorite Unitarian Universalist authors is a man named G Peter Fleck. He wrote a book called “The Blessings of Imperfection.” It is a book about living with the "blessing of Imperfection" that he wrote in response to a story that fascinated him as a child."When Bad Things Happen to Good People" is a book by Rabbi Harold Kushner who says that since more good things happen to us than bad, we must have faith. In M. Scott Peck's book, “The Road Less Travelled", Peck tells us that it takes courage to make and live different choices deeply and well. I have several shelves of books in my bookcase on this theme.
I think it is among the responsibilities of adulthood to ponder and wander through the difficulties that life presents us. I suppose this was crystallized for me in one event. My closest ministerial colleague was a woman named Frederica Leigh. For over 15 years, she was my roommate at General Assemblies, meetings, and other conferences. In one short span of time, her lifelong diabetes flared uncontrollably: she went blind, had 6% kidney function. When she called me, I could not go to her because I was dealing with radiation for breast cancer. However, we did talk every night for as long as we needed -sometimes for hours.
As soon as I finished my treatment, I got on a plane and went to her. She was dying. There were short times when she was awake. But, while she slept, I did household chores, organized her taxes, etc. I tried to be as fully present as I could be. One afternoon, as we sat holding hands, Frederika asked me to pray with her. She said, “I know I am dying. I want you to do something for me.” I responded, “You know if I can, I will.” Then she said, “I want you to officiate at my memorial service.” I was overcome. We sat, for a while, in silence. As the sun set around us in the darkening light, I answered, “Yes.”
Next to preaching their Ordination sermon, to be asked to officiate at a colleague’s memorial service is the most honored rite one colleague can perform for another. In that one moment, I felt such honor and joy. However, in that same moment, I felt such anguish and sadness. To myself, I thought, "This is the crux of life---the absolute best and the absolute worst all in one moment." So, I have come up with a theological concept that embraces these moments---It is a theology called "Bittersweet".
There is a maturity that comes with accepting and understanding that life embraces both the bitter and the sweet. Look at your own personality. Whatever it is, your greatest strength, when driven to its most logical conclusion, is also your greatest weakness. Bittersweet
There is an old adage- "Behind every cloud is a silver lining." The reverse is also true- behind every silver lining is another cloud. Bittersweet.
The symbol of the Taoist religion embraces fully this idea. The two teardrops make up two opposites. The whole entity is made up of what it is and it's opposite- what it is not. For the Taoists, opposites are fused together in one living unity. Love/hate. Joy/sorrow. Neither can exist without its opposite…so much so that within each element there is a spark of the other. Each grows and changes in a never-ending ebb and flow of life. In many belief systems, only the positives are held up as the center of faith.
In a cartoon illustration from Peanuts, Lucy is in her booth. Charlie Brown says, “I don’t like feeling down.” Lucy says, “What do you expect, ups, more ups, and bigger ups?” “Yes, that would be very nice", says Charlie Brown. “Forget about it!” says Lucy. “5 cents, please.”
I believe it is crucial to accept that bitter and sweet are both important to living. And, I would go one step further; I would say this: How we work with the challenges, the bitter of our lives, how we not only meet these challenges of our lives but also, how we allow ourselves to be changed by them, may be the greatest measure of our faith.
When I look at my life, the most challenging situations that I have hated going through are the ones from which I have learned the most. Some people believe that if bad things happen, we have done something to deserve them. They can be heard asking, “What have I done to deserve this?” I choose to believe, instead, that we don’t get out of this life without a full measure of hurt and heartache—the bitter. I have been taught to resist the bitter, to be afraid as it surrounds me, to panic- in silence- until the good abounds again. Instead, I wish to risk all for fully living.
The Taoists have the yin and yang. Some say there are clouds and silver linings, others say there is sin and blessing. I would say that embracing all of it- learning from all of it- is "the theology of Bittersweet" which says that within the trauma is both grace and goodness. We must claim both sides of life. In doing so, we can live in a life that is both sweet and bitter--- Bittersweet.
Amen, Shalom, and Blessed Be.
Purchase your books and more from the official bookstore of Omni-University, Afriware Books at the following link: AfriWare Books Website - Store
G. Peter Fleck, "The Blessings of Imperfection: Reflections on the Mystery of Everyday Life"
Rabbi Harold Kushner, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People"
M. Scott Peck, " The Road Less Travelled"
Ancestor Maya Angelou, "Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey, Now"
Iyanla Vanzant, " Faith in the Valley: Lesson for Women on the Journey to Peace"
Wayne Mueller, " How Then, Shall We Live?