First Parish of Watertown

Sermons

”Perfect Presence” – December 12, 2004Rev. Mark Harris

”Perfect Presence” – December 12, 2004
Rev. Mark Harris

Opening Words – from Hanukkah Lights by Congregation Beth El

We gather in the chill of winter solstice, finding warmth from each other,
nourishing hope where reason fails.
Grateful for small miracles, we rejoice in the wonder of light and
darkness and the daring of hope.
Holy one of Blessing, Your presence fills creation.
You have kept us alive, You have sustained us, You have brought us to
this moment.

Reading – ”The Father, the Son and the Donkey” Buddhist and Aesop


Sermon – ”Perfect Presence”

This morning I want to share with you how difficult it is being perfect.
Most of you will probably agree that I hide it pretty well. You may not
even have been aware of my perfection. But now its out in the open. It is
a terrible burden to always know the right answer, and to always remain
poised at all times – non anxious presence, we clergy types call it.
Sometimes it is even necessary to fake some flaw in my personality or
demeanor, even dare I say, my diction in an oral presentation. I might
mispronounce a word, use the uneducated accent of my rural New England
roots, or even use improper grammar, can you believe, in order to perpetrate
a ruse on you my unsuspecting parishioners – so, for instance, if I say
idear and not idea, then you know. I am trying to protect you. After all,
even the one whose birthday we are about to celebrate said the only perfect
one was his Father who he clearly stated was living, if not out of state,
then at least in another state, and certainly not very accessible. Yet some
of us seem to believe we have nearly achieved that lofty status. Did you
know I always remain patient with every rental group that I have contact
with? Without perfection this would not be possible. Just ask anyone who
saw me, should I say heard me, warmly greet the person who was honking at
me to get my car out of her way in the circle out front of the church the
day of Faire on the Square. It was a shining example of the perfect use of
preacher’s lungs.

Perfect presence. There is a bit of simple play on words there. At this
time of year many of us seem to develop this agonizing feeling that the
gifts we have purchased for our loved ones are simply not the perfect
presents we had hoped to see them joyfully unwrap on Christmas day. The
genesis of this sermon was the seemingly endless list of Christmas gifts our
6, 8, and 10 year old children have come up with this year. Every new flyer
from the store or television commercial generated additional ideas, which
might be fine, because they surely would never receive every item on a very
long list anyway. Unfortunately, the problem has been that the new items
have gone successively to the top of the list on what seems like a daily
basis. The implication has been that if they did not receive the new, most
desired item then Christmas would not be a very joyous occasion. This has led
to much angst on the part of the recipients of these lists, the brokers
between the children and the purveyor, Mr. Claus. So Andrea and I would make
some purchases thinking we had just what they wanted, and then new desires
would be made known. We thought, “they’ll never be happy, and Christmas
will degenerate into a day of shattered hopes and a deluge of tears.”

Whatever happened to the satisfied, relatively certain ethos of one major desired
item making it a perfect Christmas – like the baseball mitt I once requested
in October, which I expected delivery on two months later with much
assuredness. I still have it. Haven’t these kids ever heard of one simple,
stable request. So how to give them a perfect Christmas when the perfect
seems to keep changing or perhaps can simply not be achieved? All the
effort to make them happy for the holiday, to say nothing of the financial
commitment, increases the desire that it be a good Christmas or else. We
can make a bottomless commitment to making them happy, and still fear a day
of dashed hopes. As Christmas approaches I sometimes feel like the mother I
overheard at the Imax theater the other day. It was an early release day
from school, and we had taken our kids to see the Polar Express in 3-D. As
we waited for the movie to start, I heard the woman behind me ask her kids,
“Well, are you excited yet.? Huh, are you excited?” Before the youngster had
a chance to answer, the mother said, “Well you better be. I just paid $100
for these tickets, and you will enjoy the show.” Nothing like forced
happiness, or was it perfection with a price tag. Remember when we used to
laugh about the toddler who played with box, while the untouched perfect
gift sat in the corner?

What is it about the greatest holiday of the year that induces us to
reflect pervasively on what we can do to create perfect lives for ourselves
or our children? Is it that if we have everything or have that one thing we
want the most, we will be happy. Maybe we think, life will be perfect with
the right toys. That may sound absurd and unattainable, but when we set
ourselves up to give the perfect gift to our children, the one thing in all
the world that will make them happy, or be the person who satisfies the
other and never fails the other then we see how difficult it is to be
perfect. Impossible, in fact. While perfection may not be a word we use very
frequently, the feelings of failure and guilt and shame that we frequently
have are what give flesh to this unspoken desire to be all and provide all
to our children, our parents, or our loved ones. We have a feeling that we
are disappointing them if we do not conform to their requests. We may
think their life is hard or they didn’t get what they hoped for, and now
they are unhappy. Why couldn’t I have given them that one thing they
wanted? My failure shows how far from perfection I am. The holidays
exacerbate this because we are seeing more people, giving more gifts,
involved in more meals and it sets up that many more opportunities for
competition and the judgment of success or failure. Our desire for
perfection as gift givers or parents or family member comes from our own
high expectations, or the perceived expectations of others. We can’t meet
those standards, and thus feelings of failure arise.

The desire for human perfection comes directly from our religious faith.
The spiritual founder of American Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing said
that the purpose of our faith is to awaken within us aspirations after a
nobler character and higher existence. In fact, he said the design of preaching and
the gospel of ministry was nothing less than the perfection of the human
character. Channing said we have all the capacities to aid in the pursuit of
perfection. But if religion is suppose to ennoble us in this striving, what
is wrong? Does it set our ideals too high? Are we looking for perfection in
all the wrong places? Channing said we have the ability to make unlimited
progress in moral and intellectual excellence. So, if we have this power,
why are we so easily derailed?

Sometimes perceived perfection is not really so. Many of you know that I
have an older son, who is now 25 years old. Oftentimes when we see a
newborn baby we hear people say that the baby is simply perfect in every way
– the rosy skin, the warm, cuddly, cooing little life with wide open eyes
for the world. We often say that the birth at Christmas time symbolizes the
hopes and dreams we all place in the life of a child for all the tomorrows
of the world we live in. Even morally the baby is unsullied and pure as the
world lies before them, ready to be known and understood, and they are the
perfect blank recipients for all its knowledge and beauty. I say this not
to balance the new purity with what we now know about the genetic map each
of us has that may bring problems and heartaches and disease. This does
reflect less than perfection, but I say it in this context today to recall
a memory of an apparently perfect little baby who was born 25 years ago. An
apparently perfect one who swallowed some infected amniotic fluid and was
rushed to a neonatal intensive care unit, for it was feared that these
poisons would poison him, and possibly end this new life. Instead of joy
and happiness at the birth of my first child, I was terrified. This big,
strapping perfect looking child, who was not perceptively sick like the
other babies in the unit was not perfect. I knew right away that perfection
was not possible.

Each of us grows into the world with varying skills and talents which are
nurtured in our environments to greater or lesser degrees. Some of us are
successful economically, some of us are handsome or beautiful, some of us
are smart and some are caring. We have gifts we develop, gifts we use to
greater or lesser degrees. But no matter how we develop no one ever is that
perfect person I presented at the outset of the sermon. I am reading a
biography of Abraham Lincoln, called Redeemer President. Lincoln may be the
redeemer because he saved our nation, but he also believed not that our
nation is favored by God, but that it is our mission is to determine
what God favors for our nation. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon thought Lincoln was
“as near a perfect man as God generally makes.” He said this because
Lincoln possessed “unlimited integrity, always telling the exact truth, and
always doing the honest thing at all times and under all circumstances.”
Yet this perfect man was not very social or spontaneous in his feelings, and
moreover while he enjoyed life rapturously, still he was the victim of
terrible melancholy. This perfect man also had a deep streak of despair,
worthlessness and disappointment. We know he had marital difficulties, he
suffered the loss of a child, and he sometimes felt less than perfect in his
profession because he never earned a law degree, but was instead
self-taught.

While Lincoln would never have accepted the word perfect to describe
himself, there was a person in our Unitarian tradition who clearly felt
driven to strive for perfection. This was Margaret Fuller, who despite her
female sex was driven first by her father, and later by herself to be the
smartest, most erudite person in the world. Her father had her mastering
language after language, philosophy and science, and then on to polite arts
like piano, drawing, singing and handwriting. Did she ever sleep? In the
meantime he dreamed that she wouldn’t be able to play the piano in true
time, and voiced his doubts to his wife. As a result she practiced the
lesson for two days continuously. ”Father will think I make no progress,”
she said. Pleasing her father became an obsession. She began to worry
whether she was witty or entertaining enough, and then about the quality of
her letters to him. “I have a very bad pen,” she wrote, ”and hope you will
not criticize my writing too severely.” Later she wrote, “I fear I have
often pained you . . . I will endeavor to gratify all your wishes.” Here
we have a case of a woman who could never be perfect enough in her father’s
eyes. The reward may well have been that she was the smartest , most gifted
person in the world, and a great conversationalist to boot. But her drive
for perfection ruined her health, and she suffered with horrible migraines
her whole life, and she was so sure of her perfection that she often implied
that to others. They frequently didn’t like her, but it has always been
hard for a smart, confident woman to be liked in society whether she thinks
she is perfect or not. It is a thin line between self-love and
self-loathing. Those who are most sure of their perfection are often the
furthest from it, and their loathing underneath might be treated with a
generous dose of self-acceptance.

Famous figures in history remind us that there are no perfect people.
Sometimes there is silence among us because of shame about our status or
feelings of competition with others. The season entices us to buy when we
cannot afford to, or we find our values out of step with what seems to be
the predominant culture. If we have children they clamor for the same things
their friends have. The story I shared today speaks to many of these
feelings we have, especially at holiday time. The farmer and his son are
trying to bring their donkey to market to sell. Each group they encounter
find some reason why they are stupid, inadequate or are taking the wrong
approach. They feel that pressure from others, and so they put down the
donkey they are carrying. Then the son gets up and rides, and the people say
he is uncaring by making the old man walk, and then the next groups thinks the
opposite. Finally they both ride together, but the people feel this abuses
the donkey. In their final feeling of shame, the donkey runs off and they
lose her. The endless cycle of worrying about doing the right thing, or how
others think of us, or trying to please everybody ends us with the family
being empty handed. Christmas time makes us vulnerable to the opinions and
impressions of others, and we need all of our inner resolve to make our own
decisions about what is best for us. It is a time when our inner voice of
what is right must come to the fore.

This seems like the perfect Unitarian Universalist response, trust
yourself. Don’t listen to those other voices at holiday time. Unfortunately
we need those other voices to share our stories of family struggle or
inadequacy, or financial fears with. The profound religious thinker Thomas
Merton says that when we live for others, we are able to face and accept our
own limitations. But isn’t this the Christmas problem we have been talking
about? Its those others who broadcast or remind us of our limitations. But
Merton goes on to say, “As long as we secretly adore ourselves,” that is
think we are perfect, “our own deficiencies will remain to torture us with
an apparent defilement.” When you live for yourself, and think you have all
the answers, you fail to see your humanness. But Merton says when you live
for others, “We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all
have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a
most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need
others and others need us.” Merton says that we begin to see that both our
success and our failures are part of an organic whole. My success may help
another, or my failures may have been caused by another. Even a mistake may
be compensated for by another. No one is perfect, and we only move forward
on each others backs.

This is a significant part of the power of the Christmas message. Every
baby is us, and we come to earth needing others to care for us and nurture
us. In some ways we are like Gods, marvelously endowed, prefect and
beautiful, but we are also subject to disease and death and hatred, and we
have the freedom to make bad choices, choices that hurt ourselves and
others. I think Charles Dickens’ famous story, “A Christmas Carol” has value
here. You know it as a story of a mean old skinflint, who is redeemed and
becomes a generous philanthropist who knows how to give the perfect gift.
But I want you to think of what Scrooge was like before he was redeemed. He
worried about his business, and told his employee he must work long
hours. He looked into the ghosts of his past, and feared the grave. He is
terribly human in his inadequacies, but what he does is admit those fears.
He does not go on convinced of his rich perfection above all others, but
secretly very vulnerable. Instead he takes the risk of confronting his human
frailty. He takes the risk of encountering how much he needs others. His
problem is that he has to make the decision to be brave. The religious
experience is not that he is transformed to be a nice generous guy, but that he
takes the scary journey of encountering all his fears about life. Once he
takes that fearful journey of admitting his fears of loneliness and
alienation, then he is ready to be a true, loving generous human being who
lives not for himself, but for others.

The idea of perfection, of perfect presence, exists in religion to
remind us that none of us are there – not most beautiful or smartest. We
all have trees with missing branches, jellies that don’t jell, and children
who are ungrateful for those perfect gifts. In faith, perfection is always a
vision, an ideal, a goal. Working towards that vision is what gives meaning and
hope to life. The perfect is not here now, and even when something you greatly desired occurs, it will not be the panacea for your life. When the Israelites, received their greatest desire, and returned to Jerusalem after the exile, the prophet Isaiah reminds us they learned that resentment and fear and family problems were still present in their lives.

Even the return from exile didn’t make everything perfect. So what we will sing
as a closing hymn, which comes from Isaiah 61 is only a vision of the
prophet – being together n religious community, we can only work towards the
time when the oil of gladness will dissolve all mourning, and together we
will build a land where all the captives – all of us who are captured by
loneliness, by fears about money or illness, consumed by pride and vanity,
will one day go free, and as the prophet knew long ago, we will only do that
together, as a community, living for others.


Closing Words – from Howard Thurman

When the song of angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the brothers (and sisters)
to make music in the heart.

“Twin Towers, Empty Spaces” – November 14, 2004Rev. Andrea Greenwood

“Twin Towers, Empty Spaces” – November 14, 2004
Rev. Andrea Greenwood

Opening Words – Czeslaw Milosz, Theodicy

No, it won’t do, my sweet theologians.
Desire will not save the morality of God.
If he created beings able to choose between good and evil,
And they chose, and the world lies in iniquity,
Nevertheless, there is pain, and the undeserved torture of creatures,…


Story – The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, Mordecai Gerstein

Reading from Jamesland, Michelle Huneven
In this reading, Alice Black is attending Wednesday lectures at her
local Unitarian Universalist church; a new and controversial offering put
into place by an interim minister named Helen, who came in after a much
loved humanist minister who nurtured roses and private meetings with female
parishioners has retired…. Helen is trying to grow the congregation,
reach out into the community, and bring in more spirituality. The speaker
this evening is a therapist “like Helen, in her forties. Jean Trimble had long curly brown hair…. Her deep tan somehow suggested the practice of nudism. She wore a long
crinkled cotton skirt with sandals and had gold bands on several fingers and
toes.

Joy, she said, was rarely free floating. It was tethered to sorrow,
which rarely existed where joy had never dwelt; and vice versa. Joy and
sorrow were the balancing weights in the dance of human emotions. Joy
without sorrow was mania, Jean said, and sorrow without the memory of joy
was depression. “So let’s all remember a few recent joys. Just bring them
to mind. Don’t worry, you won’t have to share them.”…..

“Joy isn’t an individually owned feeling,” Jean continued. “Each drop
of it adds light and loveliness to the world. Now I would like you to
recall a time when you felt joy for someone else’s good fortune.”……
“Even our enemies’ joy should be welcomed. I would like you to remember
a time when somebody you don’t like had an occasion for joy. A situation,
maybe, where you lost out to them. When you didn’t get the job or promotion
or lover of your choice, and someone else did.”

The audience, like Alice herself, was beginning to fidget. She could
practically see arguments forming in thought bubbles above some of the older
folks…. “When we see joy as something we can participate in, despite its
source or its subject, our envy and sense of deprivation diminishes and true
joy takes its place.” Jean paused, and smiled. “And that’s it. There’s
only so much to say about a matter of pure experience. To that end, I
brought some music so we can engage in my favorite joy producing activity:
waltzing.”

WALTZING. Oh, great. Like the lecture hadn’t been corny enough.
“Remember,” Jean said. “Those of you who choose not to dance, or are
unable, can still participate. Joy doesn’t belong to the dancers alone.”
Alice shivered. Why did so many of these evenings degenerate into
hokiness?


Sermon

Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who created Boston’s
Emerald Necklace, also planned New York City’s Central Park. At the time,
which was before the Civil War; before industrialization; before cars, and
needless to say, before skyscrapers, the need for an empty space was a bit
suspect; especially an empty space which was costing the public a great deal
of money. The island was not particularly developed; there was plenty of
farmland, and the grid system of streets and avenues had barely been laid
out. But Olmsted explained his work to critics and politicians with an
ability to foresee the future that astounds even now. He wrote, in 1857:
“There will come a time when New York will be built up, when all the grading
and filling will be done, and when the picturesquely varied, rocky
formations of the island of Manhattan will have been converted into
foundations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect,
angular buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied
surface, with the single exception of the Park. Then the priceless value of
this …ground will be more distinctly perceived, and its adaptability more
fully recognized…. “

Olmsted’s words function like a prism, casting light forward and
backward in time and space, illuminating a reverence for nature, and
implying a human need for something elemental, as well — the rocks and the
irregularity. His description automatically includes a horizon on a human
scale and contrasts it with our vertical strivings, even before we have
achieved them. Somehow, Olmsted knows we will reach up, always and forever
— and that we will find comfort, too, in space that is not built, not
predictable, not angular. His vision of Central Park acknowledges New York
City as expressive of our desire for transcendence, and plans for the
experience of immanence as well. It is reminiscent of 15th century
Florence, a city organized around efforts to build a cathedral taller than
any in the world, with none of the traditional supporting buttresses —
while simultaneously conducting archeological digs to prove that they had
strong ties to all the tree spirits and nature gods of pagan Rome.
Designing these buildings, erecting these structures may well satisfy some
longing, but actually working in them, or in the shadow of such towers, may
not. And so we have the earth, and the Park.
I am using New York in the post 9/11 sense; as emblematic of America
itself. And yet I do not really believe that New York’s role of American
icon has its roots in that tragedy. In many ways, New York has always been
that, with Wall Street and Ellis Island; with the Empire State Building and
the Statue of Liberty; or with Times Square and the Cloisters. People who
are actually from New York often talk about being a little bit estranged
from the “American scene” — New York City welcomes people from all over,
and what they have in common is being from someplace else, but the native
New Yorkers don’t have a “back where I came from” experience to process, an
American heartland to claim. But New York really is expressive of the
American identity, and, because of the attacks on the World Trade Center,
now serves as a touchstone for what it means to be an American in the 21st
century. In this age of politics based on identity, we have in this one
city an easy reference point that is neither red nor blue; an event we can
point to to explain who we are and it is emotionally resonant with everyone:
Vulnerable, angry, grieving, proud, determined, heroic, lost; the center of
everything and ground zero. It is a place which is not there anymore; it is
both the spire into the heavens, and the buried stuff of a lost
civilization. New York captures all of our feelings, even the schizophrenic
ones.

Last week in the Globe there was an interesting article about a women’s
hockey team on which a rabbi plays. It was, in some ways, fluff — a little
oddity to report on, the rabbi mom playing aggressively in this incredibly
violent sport, which not many women play, especially the spiritual ones.
But there was this one line that jumped out at me. The rabbi hockey player
said that the hardest part was the locker room, because she was used to
being able to ask people anything about their lives, and she was used to
being told everything, too. So she knew about the heart attack one player’s
husband had had, and inquired as to how she was doing, and promptly had her
head bitten off: we are here to play and be aggressive, don’t ask me this
stuff. For the rabbi, it was completely possible to be in pain or be
worried while simultaneously trying to slam a puck into a net. She took it
for granted that this was true for others. But it usually is not. People
tend to operate out of grief or out of strength, — to be joyful or
sorrowful — and not live in the space between the two points very often.
Around the time Mark scheduled me to preach this Sunday, I and many
other clergy received a notice of Bipolar Awareness Day. The flier asked us
to address issues of mental health from the pulpit, to try to puncture some
of the secrecy associated with this kind of suffering. People will say to
their minister, rabbi, imam, or priest: “I can confide in you, but no one
else knows.” This has been true in every congregation I have served — not
so much about mental health specifically, but about any area of life where
one may feel vulnerable to shame. In every congregation, there have been
families with a member in jail, and very, very few people knew. Even fewer
acknowledged it. In every congregation, there have been people
hospitalized with mental health problems, with very little awareness or
opportunity to help on the part of others. In a world of managed care and
benefit carve-outs, people do turn to clergy, but it hasn’t been altogether
clear why. Is it confession? Healing? Absolution? Direction? Of course
it is usually all these things: one should feel less alone, less
responsible, have an idea of how to get specific things accomplished, like
paperwork and insurance forms. Meals and rides can be arranged — all sorts
of little things that can make life less overwhelming. But the real
question that drives most people to religion is, why is this happening?
What does this mean?

Sometimes Unitarians are subjected to a kind of ridicule that says we
believe in salvation by education, and today I will lay myself open to that
charge. I maintain that understanding what is wrong, and having others
understand is freeing, and empowering, and in the case of mental illness is
especially appropriate in a church setting. The stigma attached to mental
illness is a religious issue — not only about compassion and respect, but
as a cause. It is the dualistic thinking of Western religion which caused
this stigma in the first place — the idea that the world is divided into
physical and spiritual realities, with one inferior and the other sacred.
Perhaps this division began positively, as a way to give hope and control to
those whose physical existence was in jeopardy. A person may be without
material comfort, and be rich in spirit; rich in love. But this world view
has also made it possible to view mental illness as an issue of insufficient
effort; of moral failure and lack of spirit; of demonic possession.

Believing mental illness to be either a sign of God’s disfavor or a result
of the person’s own failings makes it very easy to cast off our
responsibilities to those who suffer. We can see this in homelessness
statistics (a huge percentage of the homeless have mental illness); in our
jails (take note of how many times the perpetrator of a murder has a mental
problem and has not been able to get any help. Treatment programs are not
funded, psychiatric beds do not exist, and there are no resources available,
but there is always funding for prosecution and incarceration) and in our
insurance policies, which carve out benefits for anything which effects
one’s behavior. The ability to remove one’s head from the rest of the body
is codified into our health care system! One of our tasks, as a religious
people, is to bind body and soul; to recognize that there is only one life,
and it is a physical one. Spirit may infuse that life, animate it, but
there are not two separate lives, and mental illness, like all illness, is
rooted in the body.

What does it mean to be mentally ill? In many ways, it means isolation,
as a person sees and hears things that others do not, and therefore cannot
be shared. It means confusion, as feelings arrive independently of reason:
one can suddenly be trembling in fear or rigid with rage with absolutely no
context. It can mean causing physical pain to alleviate internal anguish,
like van Gogh cutting his ear. It almost always means memory problems. It
can mean struggling to find the energy to get out of bed, and sleepwalking
through the days; and it can mean not being able to sleep for weeks at a
time. “One need not be a chamber to be haunted,” Emily Dickinson wrote —
“one need not be a house. The brain has corridors surpassing material
place.” Internal regulation which we take for granted is missing for many
with brain-based illness, and establishing patterns for sleeping, eating,
even toileting, takes great effort, lots of medicine, and yet those patterns
remain incredibly fragile.

So often in our culture, we emphasize how we are all alike, and usually
what we mean is “on the inside” — in our hearts and minds. We may look
different; be different colors, shapes, sizes, and ages, but we all love,
and feel pain; we all think and hope. But stressing sameness makes it
difficult to explore genuine differences, and almost guarantees that those
whose illness is not visible will be left out; will be left whispering that
“No one knows.” How do you explain that the nature and quality of your
suffering are categorically different from what people mean when they speak
of human pain? This is especially difficult in a theological setting which
worships suffering, while simultaneously defining evil as anything which
causes suffering. Is someone with mental illness chosen by God to live in
anguish? But then, how can God be good and just? We explain it with free
will, and say we all choose, which may make us feel better about the design
of the universe, but has to make a sick person feel even worse: Not only
are you suffering, it is your own choice.

The fact of the matter is, we are not all the same, and the degree of
control we have over our behavior varies not as a matter of will, but of
brain function. In his book Mind Wide Open, Steven Johnson contrasts
panicked activity and calm planning in the midst of chaos, wondering why
some of us respond to stress with fight-or-flight and others with tend-and
befriend. It is not a disinterested question: Johnson’s wife gave birth to
their first child after three months of bedrest, and he wrote that in the
hospital, after the delivery, with the three of them together in the same
room for the first time, he fell asleep realizing how much anxiety he had
been carrying, and how free he now felt. He said he couldn’t wait to wake
up and walk around and experience life without fear. But the next day
turned out to be September 11, 2001.

Johnson remembers the images we have all seen repeatedly now, but what
he can’t forget and can’t understand is his wife’s response. She simply
stays calm and takes care of the baby. She advises everyone to stock up on
bottled water and calls the pediatrician to ask about the air quality. She
understands logically what has happened, but doesn’t experience the shock
and terror everyone else dies. And Johnson later goes on a neorobiological
quest to figure out why.

What he learns is that the chemicals associated with childbirth and
lactation also have a profound effect on emotions associated with strong
social bonding. Mrs. Johnson’s body had a very relaxed circuitry because of
these chemicals, so she watched the planes hit without her stomach clenching
— probably at least partly because what she was really watching was her
son. There is a huge connection between what we see and how we feel;
between vision and chemical response. Gazing at an infant, looking into the
eyes of a human being, releases oxytocin, a chemical which creates the
desire to take care of a vulnerable life. Looking at a force — fire,
hurricanes, gunfire, planes drastically off course — releases adrenalin,
and creates the desire to strike back, or to run away. This information
about how the brain works should help us understand why life is so
complicated and frightening for people who have visual hallucinations:
their brains are constantly releasing chemicals in response to threats that
no one else can see. Knowing that the monster one sees is not real helps
rationally, but does not change the body’s response, so the ill person is
left trying to calmly reason with himself about what is real and what is
perceived, while adrenalin courses through his body, urging him to either
attack or take cover.

While wanting to believe that we all belong and that we are all really
the same underneath it all, most of us also rebel against the idea of our
feelings being so proscribed. Who we love and how we feel — shouldn’t that
be unique, somehow? It can’t just be chemical. Chemistry is part of the
base, physical world; love is — well, love. It is spiritual and pure. But
we may have to content ourselves with the fact that brain chemistry can make
us feel such love, because all the evidence points to human attachment as
just another part of our evolutionary heritage. The capacity to feel love
is biological. Another way to say this is that it is not divine; it is
natural. But we cannot mean natural in the romanticized, magical way that
implies beauty and good. Nature is savage and rough as well. Understanding
this gives us a chance to consciously urge evolution along: let us choose
to remove shame and blame from mental illness, and choose not to be afraid
of those places in the brain that are uncharted, or unfamiliar. Genuinely
doing so can change the landscape; can alter the world.

And so we return to the Park; to Olmsted’s vision of a place that was
unplanned and untamed; to a preserve which was irregular and unpredictable.
It would be a meaningless place without the gridwork of streets and avenues;
without the columns and steeples reaching up and casting shadows. And what
are those towers without the space between? The emptiness is where the
possibilities lie; where cables are thrown to span the distance, like
Phillippe does in the story I read. In the end, hope lies in what we do
more than how we feel, and so we must be people of action. We live in a
world which visually stimulates us to act with aggression, or to withdraw.
What we are shown repeatedly creates fear. But it is our job to develop a
social memory that includes love, too; to make sure that joy and sorrow
remain acquainted. The steps we take not only change the world, but change
how it feels to live in this world. What do those steps look like?
Something as simple as the map called “purple America”, proportionally
mixing red and blue rather than coloring each state one or the other makes a
huge difference in how we see ourselves and in how we react to our
environment. Mordecai Gerstein’s book remembering the building of the World
Trade Center and how Phillippe Petit found freedom in the space between
those towers creates a much more empowering response to loss than repeatedly
showing video footage of the towers falling.

September 11 gave us all a glimpse of what life might feel like every
day to someone whose brain chemistry is atypical. On that day, we all could
see that the veneer of civilization is very, very thin; that it barely
spreads itself over this irrational universe that boils and bubbles
threateningly just under the surface of our days. That morning, the
foundations shook for everyone, throwing us into one anothers’ hands and
hearts, acknowledging that this life — in all of its glory — is also
brutal, and it simply cannot be borne alone.

The human presence is transformative. On this, evolutionary science,
religion, and chemistry all agree. And yet we resist, like the hockey
player pushing away the rabbi as she inquired after her family. If we admit
to vulnerability, we won’t be able to fight; to win. But the truth is, if
we don’t admit to vulnerability, we do not get to live, and we do not learn
to love. American culture is identified with the perpetual frontier; with
pushing forward and being pioneers. In strength, it looks like
self-reliance, and independence. But this pioneering spirit makes us
fragile, too. It degenerates into self-indulgence and greed, and is
accompanied by an exaggerated sense of personal honor which legitimizes
lawlessness. Self interest does not create community, and neither does
shared experience if we don’t bring what is fully human into that
experience. And what is human is not either/or; it is both/and. We need to
keep spanning the distance between opposing feelings; continually bind
ourselves as one; throwing cables out in the darkness so that we can step
out into the world. Perhaps it sounds scary, living on that wire, but that
is what is required of us; to be bridges and connections — not only between
what we each feel on our own, but between each other. Freedom is ours, as
long as we are on that wire.


Closing Words John Donne

And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell,
where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one
equal light,
no noise nor silence, but one equal music,
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession,
no foes nor friends but one equal communion and identity
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity

“The Future of Reason” – October 24, 2004Mark W. Harris

“The Future of Reason” – October 24, 2004
Mark W. Harris

Opening Words – from Emerson’s The Divinity School Address

Alone in all history (Jesus) estimated the true greatness of (humans). One man was true to what is in you and me. . . But what a distortion did his doctrines and memory suffer . . . in the following ages. There is no doctrine of the reason which will bear to be taught by the understanding. The high chant in the next age was, “I will kill you if you say he was a man.” Churches are not built on his principles. He spoke of miracles; for he felt that human life was a miracle, and all that we (do), and he knew that this miracle shines as the character (grows). But the word miracle, as pronounced by the Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.


Sermon – “The Future of Reason”

In college I had a friend named Pete who came from Northfield, Massachusetts. Since we hailed from the same part of the state we often rode together to Maine and back for holidays. Pete was a great guy. He was warm and friendly, and also lived down the hall from me. Like me, Pete was a football player. While football at Bates College is hardly what you would call high powered or intense, people do become injured in this sport calculated to crush bones. One Saturday, Pete had some bones crushed, or at least twisted. We saw him carried off the field and into the locker room. After a trip to the local hospital, we learned when he returned to the dorm that surgery was recommended to repair his injured knee. Later when I saw him hobbling down the hall on his crutches, I asked him what his plans were. He mentioned the surgery, but then informed me that he would not be having this kind of invasive procedure on his body. In fact, he would be having no procedures, other than prayer. You see, it turned out Pete was a Christian Scientist. Others of us talked about my friend that day, saying basically, “he’s nuts, he doesn’t believe in doctors?, what’s wrong with this guy?, how stupid can you get?

Stupid or not, Peter never had surgery, and never played football again. Physically the swelling went down, and in a matter of time, he walked again. After he graduated I did not stay in touch, and so I cannot say what the long term ramifications of his decision were. Since then I have been aware of a number of controversial cases involving Christian Science parents and sick children who were not treated medically. Some of the kids who were prayed over eventually died. These are not simple cases as they involve issues such as freedom of religion, parental rights, and the rights of the child to receive proper medical attention. What happens when a child who might have lived, dies because the parent believes with all their heart that prayer is the best response. Probably most of us would say save the child. A life trumps a religious belief any day. Or does it?

The central issue at hand is who has the truth? A Christian Scientist believes that someone becomes ill because that person has something wrong spiritually. Once you have adjusted your life by getting right with God through prayer, you should return to the pink of health. Otherwise it appears that something is fundamentally maladjusted about you, and God is punishing you, or helping you see a better way. Last week we said that we determine whether something we believe is true or not by testing it. Here is the perfect test: if you get sicker, the implication is you are not a good person. While most of us would readily acknowledge that a positive attitude helps when we are ill, or even that marshaling healing thoughts about others in prayer can give added strength, the idea that some vengeful God has picked you out for suffering for some unknown reason seems patently absurd. This is akin to the great revivalists of the 1700’s saying that an earthquake was caused by God because he was angry about how sinful people are, and it was a sign that they should repent. While we acknowledge that others have the right to their own beliefs because we believe in freedom of religion, we also realize when we hear of the content of their faith that, even though we don’t publicly condemn it, we certainly disagree.
We do not believe the same things are true, but sometimes our tolerance makes it seem that we do affirm things that we do not.

The problem is that when children die due to people’s beliefs, we can’t just smile and think to ourselves, oh it’s nice that they have such an absurd belief. Our Parish Committee is presently wrestling with the question of whether to rent space to the spiritualist church. Spiritualists are a religious group that communicate with the dead. It is one thing to promote freedom of religion, but we also have to ask if we want this belief system to be inadvertently associated with us if they use our building. Spiritualism has a long history of quackery and sham to deceive people who otherwise grieve over the loss of loved ones. One of the odd things about this is that mainline Christian churches often question the legitimacy of this group who speaks to the dead, and yet their own central beliefs include such absurd things as virgin births, resurrected dead people, and heavens with angel wings. If they looked at themselves critically, they might realize it is an instance of the pot calling the kettle black.

Truth is a hard thing to discern. No one wants to see their own faults or foibles in the mirror, or in their constituency. Time Magazine featured a recent cover story on, “Who Owns the Truth,” and described how political partisans want people to see the world their way. No where was the twisting of the truth more obvious than in the vice-presidential debate, when one of the candidates denied ever meeting the other, even though it was patently true that he had. This has unnerving implications no matter which way you read it. If he is just lying then there is a question of character with regards to his moral ability to govern. If he is not lying, then it appears that he is delusional, and we would have to question his mental capacity to govern. Do we want someone unstable occupying this office? There are your choices. It becomes so unsettling, we almost believe him, despite the evidence. In fact William James predicted and even okayed this when he wrote in his Principles of Psychology, that reality means simply relation to our emotional and active life. “Whatever excites and stimulates our interest is real. ” This can make for any number of absurd possibilities that are considered real. No wonder James’ descendent Alice in the novel Jamesland, is trying to avoid his influence!

One of Alice’s friends in that novel is the Unitarian Universalist minister Helen Harland. In the reading from the novel we see Helen’s fetish for making fun of religious oddities. The idea is that people’s absurd little beliefs amuse her. Do we find them funny, too? Or is it potentially worse? People are sometimes amused when I relate my background in the Protestant Fundamentalist church of my youth. Many of you have heard of my childhood passion for dinosaurs and my Sunday School teacher who informed me that since these creatures were not in the Bible, they did not exist. The Bible with its non-scientific understanding of creation says that God goes straight from creatures like lions and tigers and bears to people with no millions of years before, after or in between. After she denied my scientifically tested truth, I was sorely tempted to make fun of her fantasies that were ancient myths at best and modern delusions at worst, if you understand them as serious science. She believed in a God who flooded the earth out of anger, sent every kind of plague to torture the Egyptians, and told Abraham to sacrifice his child. There was little historical or archeological truth that was known about this Hebrew tribe who escaped from bondage in Egypt, and yet she believed all the stories were literal truth because someone had once told her they were, even though there was no evidence whatsoever to confirm any of this. While I had all sorts of bones and books and carbon dating, my truth was simply not to be believed. I left fundamentalism behind because it was a religion that denied my mind’s ability to think and to question or doubt any belief that seemed totally irrational.

A half century ago, the historian Earle Morse Wilbur said that the three cornerstones of Unitarianism are freedom, reason and tolerance. These foundations all grow from the beginnings of our faith in eastern Europe when the great Protestant reformer Francis David went on a personal journey from Catholicism to Lutheranism to Calvinism to Unitarianism. Freedom meant the free search for truth. No one should compel or force us to believe anything that we cannot believe. Tolerance meant that we should allow everyone to express their own opinion about matters of faith. In what is present day Romania, the first edict of tolerance in history was declared by a Unitarian king in 1568. Finally, there was reason in the interpretation of scripture, which then was central to all religious belief. This role of reason has, by its very use, expanded to mean the use of all our critical faculties in religious matters. For one thing it became quite clear when people examined the scriptures critically, they found the doctrine of the Trinity was a later addition. Other central dogmas of Christianity were similarly non-Biblical. There were scholars, like Erasmus, who knew this, but could not question the church, until these three hallmarks of Unitarianism, marking a new way to approach faith, emerged more than 400 years ago. Freedom, reason and tolerance meant: continue searching for faith, it is ever unfolding; listen to others, be understanding of their beliefs, and finally use your mind and determine for yourself whether some text or some belief is literal truth or not.

Over the centuries liberal religion centered its open search for religious truth upon the unfolding promises of humanity rather than upon total acceptance of old dogmatic truths about the nature of people and the world we live in. Reason became a liberal embodiment of an affirmation that science and religion could work together in accepting rational truth while still affirming the mystery and wonder of creation. My father once remarked to me that there was not enough fantasy in my religion. He wanted the old consolations of salvation and eternal life, but to me these seemed to be irrational hopes, that made life itself into a literal fantasy, a completely untrue fiction that had little basis in human experience. We Unitarian Universalists have developed a faith that can be discerned through nature, through experience and the world around us. This faith is captured in Emerson’s words to the new Unitarian ministers in 1838 in which Jesus is characterized as a simple human being who merely fulfills the best that is in us, and his life’s deeds are characterized not as supernatural Godly events from beyond, but as part and parcel of the miraculous nature of life itself.

One might assume that this rational approach to life would have gained general acceptance in the world in the wake of the growth of educational knowledge, but something drastic has happened to the future of reason. We have failed to use our critical faculties to challenge the growing world wide onslaught of fundamentalism.. Up until the 20th century most people lived by the meaning of myths. With the debunking of myths by the modern secular world and the use of reason, most people lost their sense of myth and meaning. In response to this, the rise of fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism, and especially as most publicized in Islam, means that we have large groups of people living around us who absolutely believe that they hold the key to truth, and will seek vengeance upon apostates like us who do not believe as they do. What Sam Harris makes clear in his book The End of Faith, is that it is not just fanatics who have brokered their use of reason for a ticket to absolute truth, it is our friends and neighbors who have accepted these handed down dogmas as primordial truths. What might be construed as mental illness in a different context is accepted as gospel. As Harris says, “While religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are.”

The other night my wife Andrea and I were discussing the causes of this rise in fundamentalism. She theorizes that with the loss of community and the rise of modernism, people feel adrift in the world. There is too much information and too little time or connection to make sense of the things we see and read. The entire last century introduced genocide to the world on a mass scale, and now weapons of mass destruction exacerbate this fear while the media heightens the nearness of a sense of dread. There is heightened anxiety in the world that people’s core understanding of life, family and community are being eroded. In response many people have abandoned reason for absolute truth, a feeling of belonging, and guarantees of salvation. The one sure thing for these people to make sense of the tragedies of life is to believe that it will all be made better by a God who takes care of you, and will guarantee salvation for you and your family. For Islamic terrorists whose world is dominated by Western values, a ticket to heaven is blessed assurance.

These absolute beliefs have implications for us. Whereas modern society was once happy to declare freedom of belief, what happens when our principle of tolerance of others begins to effect society? When a Christian Science child dies, or a pro-life fanatic murders a doctor who performs abortions, we have to take notice that the beliefs have important life ramifications. Sam Harris says this is why we can longer tolerate tolerance to the extreme. These people with absolute beliefs want to impose their absolutism on us, and it behooves us to not accept them with absolute tolerance. What kind of response can we make to a world where even people we consider normal and rational hold these absurd beliefs? I think it is up to us to say these religions play on your greatest fears about life and death, and give you false hopes that at best are just not true, and at worst are downright dangerous. I think it is up to us to be brave enough to live truthfully and help others to, as well. As Nelson Mandela said, it is not our darkness that scares us. It is our light, our strength and our power we are afraid of. We need to be less afraid of our power.

In the novel Jamesland, the minister asks, how do people live in the world? It is clear hat people need consolation for their fears, an understanding of tragedy, and sacred values to uphold them. After his paralysis, people told Christopher Reeve that prayer and faith in God would help, but he continued to be devastated. He tried, but he only ended up feeling there was something wrong with him spiritually, he writes: “Finally, I stopped beating myself up . . . Gradually I have come to believe that spirituality is found in the way we live our daily lives. It means spending time thinking about others. It’s not so hard to imagine that there is some kind of higher power. (But) we don’t need to know what form it takes or exactly where it exists; just to honor it and try to live by it is enough. Because we are human we will often fail, but at least we know that we do not deserve to be punished. That knowledge makes us safe and willing to try again.” I think Reeve probably found he was using all his energy to believe in something ridiculous. God was not going to give him some free ticket to salvation. But he had to face that. There is a story from the Sufi tradition in Islam about Nasrudin. Nasrudin rode the train to work every day. One day the conductor asked him for his ticket. He fumbled around and couldn’t find it. He even looked in other people’s pockets, and then in their bags. Finally the conductor said, “I am sure you have a ticket. Why don’t you look in your breast pocket, that is where most men keep it?” But Nasrudin said, “oh no, I can’t look there. Why if it wasn’t there, I would have no hope.”

Nasrudin feared facing the truth that he might not have the ticket. What if his ticket to heaven was gone? He felt it was better to have false hope than know the truth. Yet Christopher Reeve found false hopes were merely that, false. He was going to have to find hope for himself and he then faced the truth about his situation, and realized how much love and healing he could bring to others, and thus to himself. He helps us realize that we are all loved and worthy however life finds us or what it does to us. Rather than taking the easy way out or follow false truths, Reeve adopted the spiritual discipline of reason. This is a gift we gave to the world long ago, and now it is one that needs to be offered once more. We must give reason a future before ancient, outdated religious absurdities consume us. Life, as we all know, is tiring, draining and difficult. Finding meaning, building relationships, and eventually facing illness and death is painful and difficult.

When we bring reason back to the world we help others focus on their true fears and concerns, and not some false promises. Our promise may be harder but it is the path to honesty and integrity rather than falsehoods and sham. When reason has a future once again we will have loving and truthful relationships, and eventually a more peaceful world.


Closing Words – from Christopher Reeve, Nothing is Impossible

In the process of learning to live my new life, I had no idea that I was becoming a Unitarian . . . Where people can be truly religious because they can be true to themselves, where honest doubt is not taken for heresy, and where the beliefs of the past and the present become the inspiration for future growth and discovery. ”

“Taking Time Seriously” – September 26, 2004Mark W. Harris

“Taking Time Seriously” – September 26, 2004
Mark W. Harris

OPENING WORDS – from Kalidasa

Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence;
the bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty;
For yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision;
But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.


Sermon

A birthday always makes one think about aging. While I enjoyed being 52
and hope the 53rd year I enter today will be just as good, I am also aware
that just last week I conducted a funeral service for a man who was younger
than I am. A relatively young heart attack victim like him always makes us
wonder why he died. Was it years of bad diet of french fry fats, or lack of
exercise, or did he drink too much, or was he under too much stress, or did
he work constantly, or was it some combination of those factors? Throw the
gene pool into the mix or sheer bad luck and we have our share of relatively
young people who meet their fate before their time. Well, what exactly is
their time? We all think we should be able to reach the Biblical four
score, but few men especially accomplish that goal. Time in this sense is
how we live out our lives with the implication being that if we lived them
in a more balanced state of diet and exercise, we would not only be happier,
but we would live longer, too. How do we bring ourselves back to this more
balanced state?

This sermon is a response to an effort by the Massachusetts Council of
Churches to achieve this greater balance in our lives. The campaign is
called Take Back Your Time. The council makes its argument with some
alarming statistics. Some examples are that 26% of American workers take no
vacation. We work longer hours than Medieval peasants – 80 % of men work
more than 40 hours per week. All this results in overwork and a relentless
pace of life. We go to England, as my family did last spring, and we come
back saying, they are always on holiday, they have no work ethic, they don’t do anything, or get
anything done. We have made doing and producing our everyday idols, but all
this labor has not resulted in anyone having more time for themselves or
their families because the money they make is worth less and less in real
dollars, and so they just work more and more.

The Council has become alarmed because its members feel that we have
lost our religious sense of sabbath. Sabbath , as we learned again in the story,
is that time set aside in the week when we rest and reflect, spend time with
loved ones and friends and are present for each other. The roots of sabbath
are ancient as we know from the creation story that is central to both
Judaism and Christianity. On the 7th day, God rests. We look at what we have
done. We pronounce it good. Later when the Jews safely escape out of Egypt,
they receive commandments, of which one reminds them again to keep the
sabbath holy. Every week, they said, have a time of no work. There were
even laws against such things as worrying or mourning on the sabbath. Most
important, it was the day when you felt like yourself again. How do we come
to feel like ourselves again, and not some bedraggled, scattered, workaholic
self? How often do we say, I have no time to do that.

Do you have a sabbath? The Council’s campaign suggests we take Four
Windows of Time over the next month and engage in slow, simple life
renewing activities. It might mean a walk in the woods or reconnecting with
a spiritual tradition or anything that is not an obligation, a duty or a
guilt laden exercise. The purpose of this is that we might take our time
seriously. We need more time, not to fill with work, or television or trips
to Target, but with each other, in the woods, on the rivers. We liberals
sometimes think we are a spiritually advanced people because we are
understanding of other faiths and believe in one universal source of love,
because we think critically and rationally about issues of faith, because we
believe that people should be able to discern for themselves important paths
to truth. Yet how many of us are tired, and don’t feel like ourselves? How
many of us need times of renewal and rest that we fail to take because we
are too busy. The other night I was at a meeting, and heard about a person
who does not come to church because Sunday is her down time from a busy
week. This makes good sense personally in terms of celebrating the true
meaning of sabbath, but what does it say about how some people feel about
church? Shouldn’t church be one place which give us time to reflect without
guilt? If church is draining or feels like work, and thus is not renewing,
then the one place where sabbath should be lifted up for all our lives needs
to change.

Western culture has usually understood time in two ways. On Wednesday
night my family was in Cambridge for the River Sing: Bridging the Charles
with Voice and Light. This was a celebration of the autumnal equinox with a
giant puppet of the goddess Oshun waving goodbye to us as summer was put to
rest, and the day and night became equal. Seasonal changes of time as a
recurring circle shows us that time can be comforting in that it is predictable and balanced, but it
always bring death and decay as well. Like the seasons our days of the week
are repeated over and over, and are a reflection of those seven days of
creation with one given over as the day of rest. It is no accident that
these days are named for Gods. Sunday was a day for sun gods, and the Romans
already worshipped Mithras. In Christ they had a new sun, and Constantine
made it the official day of worship. They did not want to be like the Jews
who worshipped on Saturday, named for its own god Saturn. Our English names
for days are closest to Norse gods, like Odin or Woden’s Day for Wednesday.
Different languages make some of the god names more clear. In French Tuesday
is Mardi, expressing its relationship to Mars the God of war, whence my name
also derives. The fact that each day is a god represents that our language
seeks to inform us that religion is not just a Sunday affair, but is rather
a balance we need for our souls in all days of the week inspired by the
sabbath.

If the seven days of the week repeat themselves, they also move forward
in linear fashion. While seasons and nature make us aware of cycles, linear
time is measured in progress and growth caught in an eternal plan of God’s
salvation. Some of the earliest liberals in America wrestled with this
seeming paradox of time. Religiously they were known as deists. They
believed in a God who created a world that was imaged as a clock, the watch
maker God, who set everything in motion, and observed what happened , but
never interfered. In some ways this God represented a mechanistic view of
things – things run on time. Yet this was also the God who had created
nature’s laws of harmonious but non linear cycles. I used to see this
represented in the old Farmers Almanacs my parents purchased every year to
help inform them about planting. On one hand it seemed to have all this
scientific information about dates and lunar events, but on the other its
predictions of weather always seemed like magic with those same inconsistent
results. This seems to represent the dilemma we find ourselves in as well.
We need some of those magic times to balance those mechanical work hours
that so dominate our souls.

Today I want to suggest four ways that we might help renew the spiritual
sense of sabbath in our lives. Let me illustrate the first by telling a
story about sabbath. Once there was a rich Persian merchant who loved all
kinds of refined things. One Friday he walked past a Jewish home, and
inhaled a delicious smell. He asked what was cooking on the stove, and was
rewarded when the family gave him the recipe, and he took it home. His wife
followed the recipe for the soup, but the delicious smell was not
forthcoming. He wondered what was missing. The following Friday he stopped
once again at the Jewish home, and personally observed every ingredient that
went into the soup. This is fool proof now he thought. But after his wife
made a second pot of soup he said, Bah!. This is still not the same. His
wife became angry, and said the Jews were playing a trick on him. She said
there must be a secret seasoning. The following Friday, he appeared at the
Jewish home again, but this time his tone was demanding. Tell me, what you
put into this soup that I smell every Friday evening. What makes it so good?
The family looked around the room. It was swept clean. Places were set at
the table with cups of wine. The candles had been lighted. There were no
other distractions. All was prepared for a special family time together.
Everyone was looking relaxed and happy. It was true that a delicious odor
filled the room. The Persian said, you have some secret seasoning you are
keeping from me. What is it? The father smiled, the secret seasoning is the
Sabbath itself, it makes everything taste so good. How often do we notice at
holidays that the specialness of the occasion makes everything taste
marvelous. The warmth of the room created from our intentions does it. The
first thing we notice about this story is that there is a need for regular
special time. It does not just automatically happen as the Persian wished.

Do we go to church once, or meditate once, and say this does nothing for me?
Reflection must be purposeful and regular. This past week I look a long
walk which culminated on the pathway along the Charles River. I had not
done this long walk in some weeks, and since we had returned from Maine had
little movement at all. The next day I had one calf that ached and ached.
While it was good that I took the time once, the pain in my body told me
that I hadn’t taken the time away from my work life to renew myself. Take
the time.

Second, that time needs to be focused. Finding time to renew yourself
does not mean multitasking, and it might even mean turning off the cell
phone. It is a time to truly pay attention. One thing I have found as I get
older is that I notice things about my environment more readily, and
especially about my body. After fifty the body creaks more so getting
started in the morning is a slower process. I need oil like the tin woodman
in the Wizard of Oz in order to function. While body pain reminds me of my
eventual demise, I also notice time slipping faster and faster into the
future. People my age do die, and the years spin by. The gift from the
faster movement of time is that I notice my surroundings more. I see flowers
and trees, smell the roses, and turn with the tides. I become less concerned
with how I look and how others perceive me. A few years ago in his book The
Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Naht Hanh said that we need to wash the dishes
in order to wash the dishes. He meant in order to fully be present for the
task we must be one with the task, and not thinking about something else, or
getting on to the next thing, always distracted for one reason or another.
Learning to sit meditatively is about paying attention. Kathleen Norris
gives us a good sense of this in the reading from Dakota.

I remember my father taking the time to go outdoors with me in the summer
nights to look up at the stars – big and little dippers, Orion and the Milky
Way. Finding our way back to ourselves means really looking at our
surroundings. We become focused in star-time.

It may be obvious but the third thing about finding our way back to a
sense of sabbath is that we do not have to be exotic or unusual. The focus
these days on people in the west discovering Buddhism, or the New Age use of
ancient nonscientific arts like alchemy or crystal gazing or even rational
UUs relying on horoscopes tells us that people are longing for something
spiritual, but what we need for time, reflection and a sense of peace may be
no further than our back door. Like the spiritual practice of washing the
dishes, many of us who literally do not have time for the exotic must focus
on finding a little piece in the midst of chaotic family lives- a dinner
together, a candle, a shared dream, a walk on the beach. Recently my family
had an hour together on the Charles in a canoe. Despite the usual cajoling
of children, being together on the rolling river with swans and herons and
geese surrounded by water lilies and weeping willows was an experience
I wished to return to again and again.

The poet Gary Snyder gives a sense of finding the sabbath in the every
day in his work “The Practice of the Wild.” He writes, “It is as hard to
get the children herded in to the carpool and down the road to the bus as it
is to chant the sutras in the Buddha-hall on a cold morning. One move is
not better than the other, each can be quite boring, and they have the
virtuous quality of repetition. Repetition and ritual and their results come
in many forms. ” This is why I picked the Billy Collins poem on Buddha as a reading for
today. We expect the image of the Buddha to be sitting in the Buddha-hall,
but he is shoveling snow. His true religion is paying attention to what he
is doing with no other purpose than the doing of what he is doing. Throwing
himself into his shoveling like it is the purpose of existence shows the
pure simplicity of the act, and the need for us to take time for pure simple
pleasures – then he takes that to its logical conclusions – hot chocolate, a
card game. Time together.

While we have talked about regaining the sabbath by giving regular time to
an activity, focusing on it, and keeping it simple, the fourth element of
finding time for ourselves again is that it not be work. It must renew,
refresh, and give us a deeper appreciation for our life, our family and our
creation. We have a bad habit as Americans of making our time of rest and
renewal into work. If we take on a physical activity many of us strive to
perfect it and demand that we do the thing well – we ask how long, how fast,
and being competitive, we also ask, how much better do I do it than than
someone else? Our consumer side also prevents us from truly appreciating
the simplicity of the sabbath. We become concerned that we must purchase all
the right equipment and it must be all the right name brands- the authentic,
the best. There is danger in making our sabbath in to more work just like
the parishioner who says she does not want to come to church because it is
more work -they’ll just ask me to do something. We must remember to give
space to the need for sabbath on the sabbath.

In his fine book on meditation, Wherever You Go , There You Are, Jon
Kabat-Zinn tells the story of Buckminster Fuller, who is best known for inventing the
geodesic dome. After a series of business failures, Fuller felt he had made
a mess of his life. One night he contemplated suicide. Fuller was a creative
and imaginative man, but nothing seemed to work out. That night he decided
not to take his life, but he vowed to go on living as if he had died. What
that meant was that he no longer had to focus on how things turned out. He
was free because every day of his life henceforth was viewed as a gift. His
new job was to no longer be a productive, money producing worker, but rather
to be an employee of the universe at large. He began to ask himself things
like what he could do for the planet, how could he make a difference in the
world. Rather than what he would do, he thought more deeply about being
himself. What does it mean to be alive in this point in time? What if we
all asked, what is my job on the planet? Most of us cannot completely
refocus our lives, but reflecting on the meaning of sabbath for each us
means reflecting on who we are, how we are, and what we are doing at this
time in our lives. It is never too late to ask ourselves these questions
about ourselves, and rediscover a sense of sabbath.

I sometimes think that having birthdays and getting older help me ask
these questions more deeply and more fully than I did 20 years ago when I
was more concerned with pleasing others, and fulfilling a role.
Encountering an ocean wave and nearly dying made a difference my life, so
that I could begin believing that each day of life I receive is a wonderful
gift. I don’t always give time to rest and reflection, but when I do I know
I am happier and healthier and more whole. Thomas More tells the story of a
woman coming to him saying, I want a better life . I want to do something
about this feeling of emptiness I have every morning when I get up. He asked
her, do you ever dream? The implication was we need time to sit and reflect
on our thoughts, our hopes, our feelings. If we don’t we lose ourselves in
work, in doing, in list making. Sabbath restores us or brings back to
ourselves. Ask yourself, do I ever take time to dream my true self into
being?


CLOSING WORDS -from Thoreau’s Walden

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I
see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides
away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose
bottom is pebbly with stars.

“The Call of Ministry” – June 6, 2004Mark W. Harris

“The Call of Ministry” – June 6, 2004
Mark W. Harris

OPENING WORDS (Responsive) from R. Tagore

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean – cradle of birth and death, in ebb and flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.


Sermon – “The Call of Ministry”

What is a call to ministry? I am sure many of us think of the idea in traditional terms. Perhaps it is a bellowing voice from on high shouting I want you, sort of a Uncle Sam poster in the sky demanding your service in the Lord¹s army. In the famous examples of God¹s revelation it is abundantly clear that some higher power is making a claim on you body and soul. Mohammed receives a call from God to carry out a special mission, but he never conceives of himself as more than an ordinary human being. Unlike Jesus he is never thought of as a miracle worker, but only as one person who is charged with an unrelenting devotion to serve the revealed truth. What is also obvious from many of these stories about receiving a call is that there is a clear human reluctance to accept it. You may remember the famous story of Jonah. How do you think you got swallowed by that whale in the first place? He gets the call to warn Nineveh to repent, but then he runs away. Or even Moses who feels he is not worthy enough to receive this call because he is slow of speech and tongue. His brother Aaron, who is a good speaker, then ends up with the job, and the creation of the priesthood occurs in the Hebrew scriptures.

The stories of human reluctance probably seem most relevant to those who call ourselves Unitarian Universalists. More often than not stories about being called by God are tales that set one person apart as being more special in the eyes of the divine. Catholic tradition seems to connote this with its priesthood that individual persons are not capable of understanding divine truth but rather need some kind of intermediate person who speaks to God for them. These go-betweens tell them what the truth is, and they are expected to conform. I remember being surprised when I visited York Cathedral in England in the 1970¹s. There were the pews on either side of the nave, and then a massive choir screen blocking the people from viewing the altar. This was a sign that the rabble stayed on one side of the screen, and those who God had called forth to have a special relationship with him would work God¹s communion magic on the other side.

In Protestant tradition much of this changed with the advent of Martin Luther who encouraged everyone to read the Bible in their native language, and also, more importantly, also preached that each person could understand the meaning of holy scriptures for themselves. As soon as Luther theorized that the people represent a priesthood of all believers, he opened the door to a potential for reform that led all the way to Emerson, and the much quoted passages you frequently hear from me about each of us having the ability to acquaint ourselves with divinity at first hand. This position may also be theological extension of our own Puritan heritage, where each member of an independent congregation had a right to speak and vote. While it was hardly democracy, because it was restricted to male landowners at first, the congregational impulse was to remove the hierarchies of creating categories of people who were either closer or further away from God. The Puritans emphasized that their clergy were people who were called out from among the people – just one of the gang – who had certain roles and duties of pastoring and teaching to fulfill, but were not any more ingratiated to God than the next guy. Like Aaron, maybe he was simply a good speaker.

That reminds me of some of the first words spoken to me when I was a student minister in Davis , California in 1975. Two things happened in the very first service I conducted there that bear a relationship to the experience of the 25 years in the ministry that I celebrate this year. The first took place in the wake of my first sermon, which included the story I told a few weeks ago about the 18th century minister from my hometown who rode out of town, only to ride cross country to sneak back through a church back door so that his Trinitarian parishioners could hear the liberal offerings they usually avoided by only coming to church on days he exchanged pulpits. After that address, I was wandering around the coffee hour shaking hands and feeling the warmth of parishioners who seemed to like what I had to say, only to be stunned silent by one elderly man who remarked, I have no idea what you said, but it sure sounded good. One should never have an over inflated sense of one¹s own wisdom and power to entrance the people. Someone is going to say, you make no sense. Always remember your weaknesses. I remember the organist of one church remarking about his minister. He is not as smart as he thinks he is. I have always remembered that. And so when one of my predecessors in Milton said never move tables, let the people do that (or better yet, hire someone), I completely ignored his advice, and have ever since moved my share of tables and chairs, and now pulpits, even when they have your name on it. The first lesson I learned was to remember my humble origins among the congregation.

Second in that same first service that I conducted in Davis, I was interrupted by the shouts of the estranged husband of a parishioner. He stood in the back, just before I ever spoke a word of that good sounding but meaningless sermon and shouted that this didn¹t seem like a church to him. What kind of church is this? To a greenhorn having someone alter my script was tantamount to a ticket to disaster. I calmly answered that we would respond to his concerns after the service, but we would appreciate it if he would sit down for now, and remain quiet during the service. And it worked! The second lesson I learned in the ministry was that anything can happen. This is not just in a worship service where microphones fail and babies cry, but in all of life. This 20 something fledgling minister needed to learn that he would witness in his ministry that anything and everything does happen. Babies give off terrible smells, and you still have to dedicate them; grooms fail to show at the altar, and you have to deal with hysterical brides, and car accidents end the most wonderful lives long before their time. Terrible tragedies of immense and seemingly senseless pain. And was it my job to explain what it all meant? No, it was my job simply to be present. The answer was not on page 22 of the book of truth, but was in my heart¹s ability to witness to life. In magical ways, too – in the wonder of birth, in the joy of celebrating a lasting love, in surviving a difficult time. These were my first lessons in ministry – Be humble. Be ready.

What was true of that first worship service in Davis was that the heart of what I did as a professional minister was the life of the community on Sunday morning – their humor, their pain, their relationships. In today¹s reading from Channing our spiritual founder, he says it is not the louder voices or tricks of oratory, it is the conviction that religion is a great concern, and all must feel its claims. The truths we struggle with as a community on Sunday morning must come from our common life – our struggles, our sorrows, our triumphs. Emerson said the task of the sermon, or the service is to convert life into truth. Truth comes through the living of our lives, and this is what the preacher tries to hold up before the congregation Sunday after Sunday, sometimes more successfully than others. And lives are built upon relationships. Where is the truth in our lives? Honesty, integrity, compassion. How are we with one another?

Today we commonly say that ministry is the work of all the members of a congregation. As I said in the newsletter this is part of the reason for changing the name of the church committee that relates directly to me as minister. Rather than the ministerial relations committee which monitors how I am getting along with you, as a professional outsider, the committee on ministry asks how we are doing in our common ministry. Clergy have professional training to be religious leaders of our churches, but ministry, as former UUA Director of Ministry, David Pohl writes, ” is a path of service calling all of us into ways of relating to a larger reality that can transform us as persons and as a society. That path of service calls us to a life of relationship rather than isolation, of compassion rather than mean spiritedness, of striving for justice for all rather than looking out only for ourselves.” Relationship, compassion, and justice for all are three bench marks I would see as vital to any ministry, that are not my task alone, but ours together.

Martin Luther, when he was elucidating his ideas of a priesthood of all also said some things about calling. Luther believed that each and every one of us has a calling. Now he might have believed that God determines what our particular role and place in the world will be, but the larger point is that each of us has some work, some love, that is right for us. We might say that is the perfect job for her. She is so good with children. Someone was joking the other day about a smart child with no social skills, and said they were the ideal candidate for early admission to MIT. On Memorial Day we saw my son Joel smoothly and warmly glad handing every other person on the streets of Portsmouth and we said what a perfect business man. He is good at it, and he seemingly loves it. I have used the word call about my understanding of being a minister, even in my journey from Christian to humanist. I have never said that God ordained me to do this work, or did any special shoulder tapping. It is work I love. It feels right and good for me. It is how I want to be in the world. I feel called.

Perhaps that sense of calling is what the ministry of the church challenges each of us with by our presence here. While I use the word calling to affirm my sense of the professional ministry, I also believe in calling as something that life demands of each of us to find our own center, our source of personal integrity to live as honestly and openly as we can in the world. When I was ordained 25 years ago in Palmer, Massachusetts, the preacher Charles Slap said, “to ordain a man to the ministry is an awesome responsibility. Through the agency of this congregation, a claim has been made upon Mark, and he has dared to accept. He has accepted divine service. Henceforth his ultimate loyalty cannot be to you, who have called him, or even to his family, who has nurtured him. For he is pledged, you have pledged him, to serve the source of life itself. He now bears the burden of distinguishing true religion from false religion, of living and preaching the true, and exposing the false. ” His words make it sound as if it were an individual burden to discern the true from the false, but I believe it is through our common struggle as a congregation, as a people of faith that we determine these truths together.

In the reading from Jane Rzepka , “To Life Ordained,” she speaks not of the separate power she received form being ordained, but of the fragility and mortality she felt from being away from her baby. The burdens of her own life were as parent – caring for those she loved, responsibility and separation. Becoming a humanist has taught me that the truth of religion is not in something beyond my life, but has its foundation in the very life I live. I, too am ordained to life, and the ordination is to live this life of the spirit, this life of building compassionate loving community to the fullest extent and with complete devotion from what I discover to be truth in my experiences and my relationships. If I have a separate call from yours it is to lead us to accept more fully the call that is before all of us to live a life ordained. And so when we ordained Jim Sherblom a few weeks ago, and I recalled how Charles Slap had suggested that my ultimate loyalty must be to the source of life itself, it was not that a congregation or family were unimportant, but that the deepest loyalty must be to truth and love and the life source that upholds us all. And my ministry, his ministry, our ministry together is to bring us all to a fuller realization of that compassionate loving community. While serving that greater love may have been the call issued for my ministry, it also points to the call of the entire ministry of the church.

David Pohl reminded us that the church calls us to a life of greater relationship, a life of caring more deeply for others, and a vision of achieving justice for all. While I might teach, or preach or envision ways we might discover that life of faith in our midst, the larger truth is that life of faith will unfold only in the midst of all our lives. As a congregation we model these deeper truths of life for and with each other so that we might take that vision, that lived experience into the world. Long ago I learned that one needs more than a slick voice in ministry – one needs humility to learn from others, and reverence for all that is greater than me – one also needs to understand that anything can happen in life, and we must be prepared at all times to give our hearts and hands to each other. Recently we have begun to talk about growth, but growth in ministry has nothing to do with numbers. We are not talking about how many people sit in these chairs, but rather we are talking about how many people who are part of this congregation are willing to answer the call in their own lives to be transformed by a larger reality; how many are willing to grow beyond self and feel they can make a difference in the life of someone or in the life of the world; that personal, selfishishness will end for enough people, so that the majority can get on with the serious business of religion. So it is hope that our ministry ultimately gives to the world – in times where people torture and kill, humiliate and shame, where 49 states deny our loving friends their just and equal claim to a life of committed love, where too many people are poor and hungry, we are all called to stand up and offer our lives as living examples of hope – that people can do better, can be better, that all can live in more loving relationship, with more compassion, and with justice for all


Closing Words – from Theodore Parker, from “Experience as a Minister”

May you be faithful to your own souls; train up your sons and daughters to lofty character, most fit for humble duty; and to far cathedral heights of excellence, build up that being that you are with feelings, thoughts, and actions, that become a “glorious human creature,” by greatly doing the common work of life.

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