First Parish of Watertown

Sermons

“More Than Words” by Mark W. Harris – December 10, 2006

“More Than Words” by Mark W. Harris – December 10, 2006

“More Than Words” Mark W. Harris

December 10, 2006 – First Parish of Watertown, MA

Opening Words – from Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

March Hare: …You should say what you mean.
Alice: I do; at least – at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.
Hatter: Not the same thing a bit! Why, you might just as well say that, ‘I see what I eat’ is the same as ‘I eat what I see’!
March Hare: You might just as well say, that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!
The Dormouse: You might just as well say, that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!

Sermon

Ministry is a profession of words. Perhaps the key thing a minister does in his/her work is craft a twenty minute essay of words week after week after week. And if a minister is going to last in his/her profession then the words must evoke truth on some level. As Lewis Carroll reminds us in the opening words you must say what you mean and mean what you say all at the same time. But that is easier said than done. This is the season when Christians and others throughout the world celebrate the birth of Jesus. In traditional theology the baby represents the Word. The Gospels tell us the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. John famously reminds us that “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.” This evokes both creation and meaning, and also evokes God or spiritual truth. We find it in words.
But ministers also know that words mean different things to different people. I have had parishioners swear they heard a certain message in a sermon, but when I have gone back to the text, all of my searching fails to uncover what they were talking about. Just one word can evoke something powerful and send people into their own universe of meaning. Last week when Carole Berney was reading the words to Hymn #1 – “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door,” I felt tears well up in my eyes. I thought how these thin walls keep hate out and hold love in, so that we feel protected here and care for, and respected and listened to. It was all that a church community can be in the context of the words of one hymn, and we weren’t even singing it. It was suddenly all those images of living together in deep understanding of human relationships that point us toward truth, toward divine living.
If words reminds us how powerful even one word can be, we also understand that words can be misunderstood or never uttered at all. In the novel Gilead, John Ames the aging minister from Iowa says, “there is a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt , and much loneliness, where you wouldn’t even expect to find it, either.” So each of us brings those feelings to church without even being able to utter them perhaps, but we somehow know that we simply want to be with others, or feel safe, or have a moment to reflect.
Some things are never expressed because of proper manners, like the Christmas gift we really didn’t want, and others are never expressed because of poor communication skills. Being a man of few words in private, I am often reminded that what I would say has been expressed by my look or my actions. We may hear I couldn’t tell how you were feeling, just sitting there and not saying anything. It could be that anger or hurt keep us silent, but when we leave the room or briskly go about our business, the meaning is conveyed in other ways. When I was young a smirk on my lips would often get me in trouble with school authority figures. They thought I was laughing at them, but I was really just anxious that they were going to berate me or shame me in some manner. It never seemed safe to say how I really felt. So I would just wait for it to be over. If my problem is that I don’t say enough, there are some people who say too much. The narration goes on and on. Here the words overwhelm, and we stop listening and lose the thread or meaning, but we may never say anything in response. There are words we say and don’t say.
What we fail to say may scream out in anger or misunderstanding. John Ames says, “Above all, mind what you say. ‘Behold how much wood is kindled by how small a fire, and the tongue is a fire.’ – that’s the truth.” It is true that meaning what you say is saying what you mean. The tongue is a fire. I assume that most of you heard about or saw Michael Richards’ racist rant at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood a few weeks ago. If the name does not ring a bell, Richards played the character Kramer on the Seinfeld TV show. Most of us thought he was a funny guy, so this tirade seemed a little different than Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic blast from several months ago because we may have expected this kind of prejudice from such a conservative Catholic neanderthal. But Kramer? If you saw the clip you know a couple of audience members interrupted him, and he went into an incredibly angry racist tirade filled with the worst language and words that included name calling, taunting, images of lynching and the power of the white man.
What he said was simply outrageously profane and racist. But then he tried to apologize for it in a number of ways. He said things like, I don’t know where those words came from. I am not a racist. He was trying to distance himself from his own words of racial venom. Then the parade of self-flagellation began. The shamed man appeared on Letterman with Seinfeld there to promote the release of DVD’s of the old TV show. Poor timing. Then Jesse Jackson took him into the woodshed to represent his confession before the symbol of racial harmony. No prayer of salvation either. Is a failed career an excuse for racism? If you use the language of a racist, if the words come in a torrent of attack, how could he say he was not a racist? The confusing thing was that much of the audience on Letterman laughed. People wondered, Isn’t this the guy who is suppose to make us laugh? Words can confuse us and upset us. The tongue is a fire.
The Michael Richards story represents some interesting things. He spoke as though what he said came from some place beyond his own mind. Those words are not me. They were also such reprehensible words, that no excuse of personal error or timing or humor make them acceptable. Do you feel like your words are you? Some of us have a hard time articulating our feelings or what we mean. I have always felt good about my public presentations if I could prepare them in advance, and use a script to read from, unless I knew the material exceptionally well. But I have always felt intense anxiety over classroom discussions where I thought the teacher was going to call on me. I knew the facts, but I was afraid I would stumble, and have people laugh at me if I tried to put them into an articulate answer. This is still true. I love speaking before groups if I have a text, but if it is a situation where there is intense feeling, such as a community meeting, and I am speaking extemporaneously I fear my words will be incomprehensible. Under pressure, I have terrible fears about what I am going to say. Fear of failure around words grips us all.
One of my clergy colleagues here in Watertown was telling how his six year old son was hoping to have a little sister who would be born in Syria. He told his father, “Then she will be able to speak Arabic like you. He was thinking the words come from the place, and not the people who speak the language. Of course we absorb the words of our surroundings. I was not naturally racist as a child, but I certainly learned to use the N-word from my family. Unlike Michael Richards, I didn’t really know what I was saying. Put yourself in a different context – in Scotland I thought they were speaking a foreign language, in England I used the word pants, and they blushed for me, thinking I was saying underwear. You can feel like your words or what you mean by them cannot be comprehended.
I think of this in the context of learning how to read. Although it has nothing to do with reading, a sentence I hear as much as any other, especially since my computers are Macintoshes, is “Do you have word?” Of course this is a PC user asking if I have Microsoft Word because that is the software he/she is using, and the implication is that I will not be able to read their files unless I have the same program. I won’t be able to understand the file they have sent. The battle between Mac and PC users mirrors the battle between those who advocate different methods to learn how to read. Growing up in the 1950’s I used a look-say approach found most classically in the Dick and Jane books. At about that time, phonics reemerged as a popular method to teach children how to read. Phonics advocates said that children need to learn the alphabetical code first, (letter patterns and sounds), and then they can learn meaning. A whole language or word approach says that children can read if you give them opportunity, good material and especially focus on meaning. What it lacks is decoding skills. It also does not help much with spelling unless you happen to have a photographic mind where you can picture all the words in a whole word format.
What happens if they give you the whole meaning without breaking down the word first. This may work for some , but not for others. If it does not work for you, then you feel stupid, and when you cannot comprehend , your sense of self-worth declines. If you cannot understand or spell the word, what good does it do if you can read it? We remember it as a basic problem of meaning and understanding if reading was difficult for us. I was never a fast reader. I am also aware that when I read I always say the word in my mind as my eyes scan the page. When I asked Andrea about this, it seems that she does not say the word in her mind, but simply comprehends as she scans. This may also be a product of how we read. She tends to look for meaning and I look for facts, which I later build into a meaning. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things, I need to break it all down before I can discover the meaning. Otherwise I am lost if someone does not take the time to give step by step directions, letter by letter, word by word. We have to ask if we have the understanding and compassion to look at the individual needs of children and help them learn to comprehend in the way that works best for them.
This is true religiously, too, as we represent a tradition where words are the foundation of all understanding, not only comprehending what we speak and hear, but the deepest meaning of life is found in words. If you cannot comprehend the meaning, but moreover must discover that deepest meaning through the most original form and language comprehension, then you are not as close to God, or to the deepest meanings of life as you might otherwise be. Some of the Puritans in their striving to comprehend the word of God decided to use the earliest translations of the Bible available to them. So even though they did not understand a word of it, they had Greek and Hebrew read to their congregations instead of English in order to hear the word of God in what they believed was its purest form. Perhaps this is reminiscent of the Catholic church using Latin. It runs counter to the general Protestant tradition that we are a part of, where the comprehensible words of scripture read and explained from the pulpit became central to worship. This was where they believed God was revealed, and not in the Sacrament of the mass as in Catholicism. We want to find words that will bring us to the fullest understanding of the meaning and depth of life.
In his book, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, Adam Nicolson reminds us how important words were to the English reformers. King James put sermons under his pillow at night. Those same sermons had the poet T. S. Eliot marveling at how the preacher could take one word and derive a world of meaning from it. While it may seem absurd to us today, these words were the ultimate truth about life, the foundation of all understanding. So if this is the case, then you want a Bible, or we want a book, that we can read and understand. You want to be able to sound out those words and go to the heart of the meaning. And the words must reflect our experience of living. We sometimes hear that in Alaska the Eskimos have 11 words for snow. They know it so well, that they derive a world from it. On the other hand, I heard in a film on global warming that that same culture has no words in its vocabulary for some of the terrible environmental effects. When you don’t have the words you cannot comprehend. This begs the question of whether you can have receptive language without expressive language. Can you understand without being able to say the words? We clearly seem to be able to understand concepts, but can we resolve our deepest emotional and spiritual conflicts if we cannot express ourselves? Probably not.
What is also true is how difficult it is to find the right words, and how we use words that reflect the meaning we intend to find, rather than the objective meaning. This intention was born out by the Puritans who mostly used what was known as the Geneva Bible. In that translation you can find the word “tyrant” 400 times. Then along came King James to produce the new translation which most of us grew up on. How many times do you suppose the word tyrant appears in the King James version? (zero). Can you truly say this is the word of God, or is it the word of the translator corresponding to his belief about the divine right of monarchs? Yet if the words of the Bible were the foundation of all meaning, then you wanted the most accurate text or words possible. These words, Calvin said, should compel us to point all our virtue, all our wisdom to build up the house of absolute truth, which was overcoming the devil with Christ.
Finding the right words for the Bible has been difficult throughout history. I recently finished reading a book called Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. Ehrman began his Biblical studies as an evangelical who believed in the inerrancy of the text, that is the Bible is the absolute word of God. Slowly as he began to study the Bible he realized that it was not only not inerrant, but that what he called the original Bible was a copy of a copy of a copy of an original text which no longer existed, and wasn’t even written until hundreds of years after the events took place. Not only were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John not real people, we don’t even have what they wrote down. We have copies, with translation and changes and errors all having creeped in. The author of Luke says he consulted many predecessors. We don’t have any of them. There are more differences among manuscripts than there are words in the Christian scriptures. Of course what they were doing to the text was what we do to a text when we read. Reading involves discovering meaning. As a fundamentalist Ehrman thought that the meaning was inherent, and that the texts would speak for themselves. But he learned that was not true. If it was everyone would agree on what it said and meant. Instead, we must try to understand as best as we can how the words were put together originally. Sometimes the scribes were more competent than others. Sometimes the scribes wanted to underscore that Jesus was God, and so they added or changed or took away words. All to prove their point of view. This was how they created a culture of orthodoxy. What Ehrman discovered is that we must each find the meaning in the texts.
While this Biblical viewpoint underscores what UUs believe about ancient scriptures, it also points to finding the deepest meaning in what we read and speak. What kind of culture of words are we creating? My mother was one of those people who preached the gospel of “if you don’t have anything good to say, then don’t say anything.” I suppose you could interpret this as saying avoid the difficult issues of anger and pain, but I always took it to mean for me to be the best person I could be – kind and loving and understanding of others. When Unitarian Universalists say that every child born is a holy child, not just Jesus, we mean that we are the incarnation of God’s own word. That means the words we use must be words that bring out the best in us. But it also goes beyond that to say that we only understand life through words, and we must therefore help everybody understand the words, just as translators once wanted to give everyone the word of God. And so if we have braille hymnals and hearing assist devices then we are trying to give access to everybody to hear and understand the word. When we change our words in our hymnals from Father God to Spirit or Divine Truth, we are trying to use words that are inclusive of everybody, so that women are not left out. So just as Calvin once said the words of the Bible must call us to the most virtue and most wisdom, so the words we then use in our lives call us to respect and listen and welcome everybody. That is our divine truth. So if we are dealing with another person or an institution who withholds information or words from us that might benefit us or our child if we only knew, then they are reflecting Calvin’s view of affirming evil. They are denying us the words we need to hear. They are being mean spirited. Then if they tell others, and not us this important information or words, then again they are being cruel. Then finally when they do tell us, they do it in a blaming fashion, and fail to tell us how they might help. We hear words that are too little and too late. Why do the people and institutions in our lives communicate so poorly? One of my favorite Wayside Pulpit quotes is by Paul Carnes, and its says church is the place where we learn how to be human. Here we once learned the word of God from a text of words, and today we need to learn to use words that speak of better communication and truthful relationships.
Last Sunday afternoon, I went to a memorial service at Arlington Street Church for Joan Goodwin, a great religious educator and historian who I had worked with over the years. At the service her children described what a beautiful death it was. They sat with her holding her hands and sang to her. I was talking to a friend afterwards about that, and she said how nice it would be to die that way surrounded by family and friends, but then she said to me, as long as you don’t sing. We both laughed about some of the failings of my singing ability. In the context of singing words though, it seemed so important. A few months back someone remarked to me that what they loved about church was that it was they only place in their life where they sang with others. Together we are united in words that reflect meaning. We are one. We are whole, and the words usually point us toward greater loving of the earth and each other, which are words that point us towards what it means to love God. There were some ancient cultures, including Anglo Saxon, that used a Rune alphabet. Runes are similar to Latin letters, except that they tend to have few curves and consist mostly of straight lines. Runic letters were used for over one thousand years to mark graves, and identify property. Runes were also used as a form of divination – the way the letters formed words as you cast them helped you see the future .The word ‘rune’ derives from the Old Norse and Old English run which means “mystery.” Of course the truth of ancient Biblical texts are somewhat of a mystery, and the way we communicate is sometimes a mystery, but the more we use words the more we will understand each other, and the more we will understand deeper truths about life. I am reminded about how we tell young children who are fighting to use your words. Tell what happened. Tell me what is going on. I wish we could all be better word partners, be part of relationships and institutions who could communicate better, drawing out our greater virtues. In her poem “Rune,” Muriel Rukeyser says, “The word in the bread feeds me, The word in the moon leads me, The word in the seed breeds me, The word in the child needs me.” What this means is that very person, every part and particle of earth and the heavens have a deeper truth, and we are living our lives to intuit its deeper meaning . When we truly meet the child – listen and respond, then we hear the word, When we truly see how the fruit feeds us, or how the animal or tree is a vital, non expendable part of the bio-system, we truly meet life. And so the word in the seed is the Word, and it feeds me, is me, is life, is God.

Closing Words – “Rune” by Muriel Rukeyser

The word in the bread feeds me,
The word in the moon leads me,
The word in the seed breeds me,
The word in the child needs me,

The word in the sand builds me,
The word in the fruit fills me,
The word n the body mills me,
The word in the war kills me.

The word in the man takes me,
The word in the storm shakes me,
The word in the work makes me,
the word in the woman rakes me,
The word in the word wakes me.

“Loving Calvin Again, For the First Time by Mark W. Harris – October 29, 2006

“Loving Calvin Again, For the First Time by Mark W. Harris – October 29, 2006

“Loving Calvin Again for the First Time” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – October 29, 2006
Given at Andover Newton Theological School on October 25, 2006

Opening Words – from Robert French Leavens
Holy and beautiful the custom which brings us together,
In the presence of the Most High:
To face our ideals,
To remember our loved ones in absence,
To give thanks, To make confession,
to offer forgiveness,
To be enlightened, to be strengthened.
Through this quiet hour breathes the worship of ages,
The cathedral music of history.
Three unseen guests attend,
Faith, hope, and love
Let all our hearts prepare them place.

Service notes: Today, you will not hear the sermon announced in the newsletter. I will save that for another time. Instead my sermon today is a slight revision of one I gave Wednesday at Andover Newton Theological School. On that day, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the president of the United Church of Christ were together in an evening program on the same podium at Andover Newton. To those unfamiliar with our history, the Unitarian side of our tradition and the Congregational side of the UCC tradition once represented the same church. Our church here in Watertown was founded as a congregational (small c) church in 1630. These were the Puritan churches of Massachusetts that were organized as the state church for the commonwealth. They followed the theological teachings of the Protestant reformer John Calvin. I often tell people that a quick understanding of our history on the Unitarian side is that the Congregational church split in half in the early 1800’s. Over the years the Unitarians and their ex-partners have cooperated in many ways, but theologically the UCC has remained in mainstream Christianity, while we have become pluralistic with some among us still calling themselves UU Christians. Because of the event at Andover Newton, Darrick Jackson, our former student minister here, invited me to speak at the weekly chapel there, and suggested that because of the historic conversation which took place on Wednesday evening between the presidents of the UUA and the UCC, that I might share some of my thoughts on the Unitarian/Trinitarian controversy of 200 years ago. Harvard was the primary training school for ministers, and the controversy began in earnest in 1805 when they elected an acknowledged liberal to be the professor of divinity. Theological conservatives responded by founding Andover Seminary, and a 30 year battle ensued.

Reading – from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we perform our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? I suppose Calvin’s God was a Frenchmen, just as mine is a middle westerner of New England extraction. Well, we all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little. It would be a way into understanding essential things, since presumably the world exists for God’s enjoyment, not in any simple sense, of course, but as you enjoy the being of a child even when he is in every way a thorn in your heart. “He has a mind of his own,” Boughton used to say when that son of his was up to something. And he meant it as praise, he really did.

Sermon – “Loving Calvin Again For the First Time” – Mark W. Harris
On this date exactly two centuries ago, Henry Ware had already assumed his place as Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, signaling that it had been captured by the liberals, Jedediah Morse was plotting ways to expose this liberal heresy, and dreaming of founding Andover seminary, a school that he perceived would train clergy up in the real Christian faith, and not the so-called Boston religion that was jettisoning theology. The Standing Order of Congregational Churches in Massachusetts broke apart in the nineteenth century because they could not embrace both its Calvinist and Unitarian poles. Evidence of this historic split is seen across this state. If you travel to the location of my former parish in Milton, you will see the Unitarian Congregational Church on one side of the town green and the Trinitarian Congregational Church on the other with an ugly modern town hall in between representing the separation of church and state. If you are looking at the churches from the street, the Unitarians, of course, are on the left side of the green.
Massachusetts, as you may or may not know was the last state to disestablish a state church, and did so in 1833. One scholar has called this the most significant event in Unitarian history because the liberals, whose ministers and property were largely being supported by tax dollars, were fooled into thinking they were leading a large denomination. After 1833 the freedom to not affiliate with any church became an option, and people left in droves. Henceforth, the Unitarians had to run successful pledge drives and be evangelical. While many of us can talk about money now, evangelical has always been a dirty word. In his, “Sober Thoughts on the State of the Times, Henry Ware, Jr. remarked that the result of fighting over differing doctrines meant for the Unitarians, that, I quote, “we are a community by ourselves.” Ware characterized the separation as a “crisis of unspeakable interest to us.” It was a crisis because Ware said the Unitarians had to figure out the character of their institutions, the nature of their faith, and how faithful they were going to be to the gospel.
While Baptists, Universalists and others were struggling to define their faiths and reach out to new converts, as they battled the establishment, their Congregational counterparts were enjoying the fruits of a steady stream of tax paying parishioners. Many of these, especially on the Unitarian side did not care for theological disputations. In fact Ware, Jr. said that many people became attached to Unitarian parishes because they disliked Calvinism, but liked nothing else. They were not only anti-Calvinist, Ware said, they were anti-everything, and had some vague idea that religion was kind of a good thing, but it should never be “severe or urgent.” I think the Unitarians were denying their emotions because the fight was severe. Congregations not only split, and ministers lost their pulpits, but in Dedham they even turned the church building so they would not have to look at each other. I think my favorite story of the split occurred at Second Church Dorchester, where the parishioners were getting fed up with John Codman’s refusal to exchange pulpits with liberals. The parish had voted for his dismissal, but they were waiting for a church council to actually confirm this. One Sunday, Warren Pierce, a liberal who was principal of Milton Academy was invited to preach. A group of liberals went to church early to guard the pulpit against any attempt by Codman to recapture his place. As it turned out Codman got up earlier than Pierce, came to church and conducted worship from the floor, since the pulpit was barricaded by liberals. After Pierce arrived he waited Codman out, and then the pulpit guard let him in, so that the liberals could conduct their own worship. Being no fools, the liberals decided it would be a mistake to leave the pulpit unguarded, and so Pierce was fed his lunch in the pulpit, and then conducted the afternoon service. As you can imagine Codman then returned to conduct his own afternoon service. After all this it became evident to the liberals that the Trinitarians were in the majority as they had more people there for services, and so the liberals withdrew their claims on the parish, and went on to found the Third Religious Society in Dorchester.
In the wake of the Unitarian controversy, the Trinitarians began to tell the now familiar joke that the Unitarians kept the silver, and we kept the faith. People have often remarked on the affinity between financial success and those who chose the less demanding theological position of Unitarianism. I think Perry Miller once remarked that the aspiring capitalist did not want to lie around waiting to be filled with the holy spirit when he could be out making money. Then of course liberals made a correlation between those who God favored, and those who did well materially. Salvation became less and less a sudden emotional revelation of God’s grace on a troubled heart, and more and more a slow educational process, whereby one learned faith more than experienced it. Liberals began to emphasize what each human being was capable of achieving. Career and educational development led to the most cultured and successful kind of person, so much so that salvation no longer pertained to what God could do for you, so much as what you could do for yourself. James Freeman Clarke called it salvation by character. What we need to remember in reflecting upon this old Congregational fight was that it was not a battle primarily fought over the Trinity, and in some ways it is unfortunate that we use that language. It is sometimes said that Unitarianism developed out of Calvinism because Calvin put such a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God, and thus de-emphasized Jesus. In Protestantism, we don’t see that suffering person on the cross any longer. He is not there for us. In fact, it was the suffering nature of humanity that was the primary reason for the Congregational rift, and not the humanization of Jesus. To make a long story short, liberals rejected original sin, scoffed at predestination, and began a march down the road of affirming the positive character of human nature all the way to Emerson’s notion that the divine dwells within each of us. So the real fight was over the doctrine of human nature. Liberals said we do not want to feel bad about ourselves, and fled from a perceived theology where there was nothing good in them, they were totally dependent upon God’s grace, and where they might go to hell anyway, despite all the good works they performed. It just wasn’t fair.
I had an individual experience of this as a child, when the conservative Congregational church of my youth, which was not part of the United Church of Christ because it was too liberal, made me feel sinful and useless. I rejected this church, and embraced Unitarian Universalism because it allowed me to use my mind to discover a loving God who affirmed my inherent human goodness and worth. The elders of my childhood church probably felt the UCC and the UUA, all the liberals, abandoned theology in favor of the human potential movement and politics so that everybody gets into heaven, and we should all just be nice to each other. I saw the church of my childhood as still trying to affirm Calvin with sin, death and damnation. I had images of Jonathan Edwards’ wrathful God dangling me over the fires of hell like a loathsome spider. With this image of God in mind, John Lowell wrote, “Are You a Christian or a Calvinist?” reflecting his belief that Calvinism was too bloodthirsty to even be considered Christian. If we who claim the Puritan heritage once loved Calvin, we found we no longer did so in mainstream Protestantism. So why would anyone, who once rejected this seemingly repugnant theology ever want to love Calvin again, for the first time? I want to use the remainder of my time to tell you why I believe we should reaffirm this common UCC/UUA heritage.
While the battle was over their respective doctrines of human nature, the split occurred because the Calvinists did not want to abandon specific theological positions, and the Unitarians wanted to be tolerant of all positions within a broad Christian framework. What this eventually meant was that doctrine no longer mattered. Theology was replaced by ethics, and many came to believe you were Christian if you were a good person. Parker’s Pure Religion made people wonder if Jesus mattered. And Emerson’s oversoul made God into a universal force rather than a paternal being, so that Henry Ware Jr. concluded it might as well be atheism. Unitarianism then continued its long march through humanism and now pluralism. Liberals by the 21st century had developed a very tolerant perspective. We say we value everybody else’s point of view. So we have the goodness of religion in general, but we lack perspective on the particular. What this means especially for Unitarian Universalists is that we may have no singular perspective, except valuing everybody else’s perspective. I cringe every time I hear about a colleague who says to a congregation or a search committee I want to reflect your theology, thus implying that he /she has no theology of their own, but desires to be a mere mirror of the people. While I have some reservation about much of what he says, Sam Harris in his book, The End of Faith makes the crucial observation that we liberals often become so tolerant of every perspective under the sun that we let violent, misogynist and crack pot religion off in the name of pluralism.
Now there is also an interesting paradox here. We are at once tolerant of others, but we are also invariably right. This was brought home to me this summer when I was the theme speaker for a history conference on Unitarian Universalists and Class. As I researched my fourth lecture, I became deeply disturbed about the heritage I love and teach. I discovered something I should have been aware of, but mostly was not. In the late 19th century an America eugenics movement began to develop hand and glove with social darwinism. What was so disturbing was that into the 20th century the leaders of this eugenics movement, many of whom were also leaders of the social gospel movement, were our very own liberal Unitarians, Universalists and Congregationalists. It made sense once I reflected upon it. Salvation by character meant all the best educated, most successful people were Unitarians. They were the top of the heap, and if everyone was just like us, the world would be a better place, even the kingdom of God would be revealed. It was a short step to we have the best blood and the most culture and respectability, and those other kinds of people – poor, black, immigrants, what we now call developmentally disabled – those populations need to be brought under control. The result was the prevention of certain kinds of people from marrying, and a broad state by state program of sterilizations. It puts an entirely different perspective on such liberal issues as birth control, euthanasia and even the antiwar movement. Some people were pacifists because they believed the “defectives” got to stay home, and the genetically superior people were killed off. The elite moral aristocracy, that is our liberal religious heritage believed it knew what was best for America. Hitler learned a great deal from the American eugenics movement.
Many of us would surely say that was then, and this is now, but I wonder. When I studied James Fowler’s stages of faith, I remember thinking that I was at the top of his religious hierarchy, which placed the rational, educated types as the most enlightened.. Often when we have no particular perspective, and claim to understand all of the other perspectives, we reflect our superiority to all of them. This hierarchy puts us above everyone else. We sometimes joke that liberals love people in general, but hate them in particular. Locally, I think many of the liberals feel like the “townies” get in the way of our implementing the truly enlightened positions, and we may try to do so without listening to their struggles. This summer at the conference on class one of the most painful things was to hear from several people how difficult it was to be part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation if you had experienced failure in any way, either in your own life or with your children. People stayed away from church if they could not emulate their fellow successful parishioners. I thought how sad this was, that we could not feel each other’s pain and sadness. But then I thought of that Calvinist church of my youth which I rejected. It was made up of people who once would have been called sinners – the addicted, the shunned, those hurt by life in some way. It became clear why I wanted to love Calvin again.
Last year I gave a lecture on the 200th anniversary of Hosea Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement, which was the seminal work on Universalism, and the universal salvation it reflected. Universalists were a small, evangelical group who had to battle against the established church here in Massachusetts to be recognized as legitimate. Universalism is an interesting corrective to Unitarianism especially in its early embrace of Calvinism, which has mostly been wiped from our historical memory. That is unfortunate because it is the kind of corrective I believe liberals need today. What it does is help me see how rejecting Calvin means rejecting equality and community and understanding our common humanity.
Ballou did that in three ways. He said God’s loving intention for humanity is salvation. God is not going to defy God’s own intention. God means for us to be saved, and we will be saved. Universal salvation meant that everyone goes to heaven. There are no distinctions. It took the moral superiority of all groups, including the liberals, and said this is garbage. No one is any better than anyone else. Remember the liberal seems to talk equality, but historically it is equality on the basis of becoming exactly like me. Ballou said we all have a place in the choir, as God’s grace fills us without us having to “do” anything.
The second issue that Ballou makes us look at directly relates to the classless idea of salvation. Historically, salvation has been about how I am going to get into heaven. And for some it seemed that worldly success, money or that Harvard degree meant that you were earmarked for the pearly gates. Ballou said no, you are all going to get in. Salvation then was not about self-fulfillment, it was about communal sanctification. No one is saved unless everyone is saved. So Ballou takes our personal, materialistic, selfish, get ahead of your neighbor, I’m better than you, idea of salvation (heavenly then, earthly now), and says no. He says if someone is hungry or enslaved, then God’s intention of “happifying” the human race is being denied. God wants everyone to experience the joy of salvation. Now you might be saying that with predestination my idea of loving Calvin goes right out the window. Granted, Ballou does give me a chance to embrace a different kind of pluralism where all truths become salvific, but it is not quite the same. For me, it has do with original sin, and the value of seeing sin as part of the human spirit with the end result the creation of a holy commonwealth.
In Ballou’s scheme of salvation, sin is never denied, and everyone participates in it. One of the values of believing in original sin, which Ballou eventually rejected, is that it unites the human race and prevents us from making distinguishing judgments between sinner and non sinners, saved and non saved. I am not suggesting we embrace original sin again, but rather look at liberalism’s failure to understand the human condition, and the struggles that regular people have. Ballou’s theology acknowledges the incredible brokenness of life that most of us do experience in one way or another. This reality which is reflected in every day’s Boston Globe was expounded upon by Martin Luther King in his essay “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” where he said he cherished liberalism’s use of reason, but then went on to say “The more I observed the tragedies of history, and man’s shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin . . I came to feel that liberalism had been too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism. I also came to see that liberalism’s superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin.”
One of the values of recognizing sin in this theological matrix is that we recognize that every single person struggles. In her novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson in her reflections on the modern day Calvinism she embraces writes of how Boughton recognizes that the thorn in his side that his son represents, and the reflection that he has a mind of his own are really praise for his very human being. This being is damaged in some way, and lives in a broken world, and yet is loved for his very being despite the fact, that “he is up to something.” Calvin’s sense of sin is important because it makes us one human race of equals, and it also recognizes the secret struggle of each person. Liberalism, at least the Unitarianism I have known, has sometimes ignored those struggles, and it has reflected a moral and intellectual superiority that has made it difficult for regular people to affirm it. When Robinson quotes Calvin she reaffirms this because when we live and strive for ourselves alone, or seek only our own advantage, we violate the commandments in a most basic way. This is why, as with Ballou and Calvin, we must embrace the human race “without exception in a single feeling of love.” Liberalism taught me to love myself, but its extreme implementation of this leads us to neglect love of neighbor. Instead of learning only to love ourselves and nurture our own spiritual development, we would begin to build communities with all of our neighbors.
The other night I was watching Al Gore’s film on Global Warming, “An Inconvenient Truth.” During the film Gore talks about how his family had raised tobacco for generations, it had been something they always did, and it had given them a good livelihood. The tragic irony of this, and the ignorance of what evil we can perpetrate without even knowing it came when he shared how his sister had died of lung cancer. What goes around comes around. It made me think of the dark skinned boy with the Armenian name who moved to my rural town in Western Massachusetts when I was a boy. He was new. He was foreign. We called him names and we beat him up. Forty years later I moved to the town with the largest Armenian population outside of Armenia. The evil I had done in bullying him came back to me. What we have done to the earth comes back to haunt us. The last thing that I love about Calvin is that his central doctrine was the sovereignty of God. This sounds severe for a liberal to be preaching, but what we liberals have often lacked in our arrogance and pride of achievement and know it all answers is humility before the creation. We have failed to have due reverence for all the greatness that is much more great than we. And perhaps in these days of melting polar ice caps that is the message of Calvin that must beat strongest in our hearts. Get on your knees before this creation and be startled into action before the rushing waters flood your pride out of existence. Marilynne Robinson posits that we are actors on God’s stage here for the enjoyment of the sovereign. We liberal Congregationalists and Unitarians have depicted Calvin as a bad guy for a long time, and yet through his legacy we may once again feel a common sense of frailty and struggle, we may feel a sense of common humanity and unity, and we may feel a sense of reverence for and humility before the great powers of creation. Calvin foresaw the creation of holy commonwealths not individual fiefdoms of salvation. There is still time if we could embrace this urgent need to feel the joy of the creation, and act to save it.

Closing Words – from Hosea Ballou

If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good. Let us endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.

#######################

“Securing Success” by Mark Harris – September 24, 2006

“Securing Success” by Mark Harris – September 24, 2006

“Securing Success” – Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – September 24, 2006

Opening Words – from Emily Dickinson

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple host
Who took the flag to-day
Can tell the definition,
So clear, of victory,

As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Break, agonized and clear.

Sermon

What do we mean by success? I hear the term a lot these days as part of school vernacular. We want your child to achieve success. I have never quite understood what they mean. I expect many of us understood it as good grades, acceptance at a good school, and then a career that leads to recognition by peers and financial reward. We usually imagine that all the children in a Unitarian Universalist Sunday School will be smart, good looking, high achieving wonders, mirrors of Garrison Kellior’s ideal. This summer in the conference I led on Unitarian Universalists and Class, I heard from many of my participants that it was difficult to be part of a UU congregation and be perceived as or feel like a failure. Do the highly educated, economically secure majority make you feel alone and miserable if you do not meet these exacting standards of success? Do you feel safe enough and affirmed enough to share your pain with others if you fail, or if your child fails? Well, we hope so, but it is difficult when achieving success in life is fraught with such competition and the drive for economic success. The genesis for this sermon began with a conversation with Andrea around MCAS scores. We heard that our town was not achieving like the other towns around us, and the comparison seemed to be how we fared in the context of their high scoring achievement, and not in terms of a bar for everyone that might indicate success, or even that there might be different kinds of measures of success.
The local professional baseball team measures its degree of success based on whether they make the playoffs or not. This year they are failures, made more so by the success of the early months contrasted with their dive into oblivion. We often think that spending money on all the best players will result in success. Yet the seemingly perfect roster does not necessarily produce a winner on the field. There is a good baseball metaphor for this in the context of the conditions under which we play the game. The average person might think the ideal day for a ball game is one of those beautiful sunny, blue skies days, where there is not a cloud in the sky. Yet for a ball player a cloudless blue sky can be a disaster for trying to catch a ball. This is not due to the sun in your eyes, but rather that a ball gets lost more easily in that perfect sky. There is no depth, no contrast. The sky metaphor extends to painting exhibits as well. Last week I spoke of Americans trying to achieve artistic success in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their worked was judged by juries in order to be exhibited at shows. The worst fate was to be rejected outright, but nearly as bad was to have your painted “skyed” in a show. That is to say that the work of art is hung so high on the wall that no one can see it. So hanging high or a cloudless day can be signs of failure in the worlds of baseball and art.
The cloudless day as the surest way to miss a high fly ball echoes the theme of Emily Dickinson’s opening words. Success or the longing for success is sweeter for those who never seem to succeed or are never allowed to. Think of how it was for the first women preachers who were told time and again – you do not belong in the pulpit, you do not have the voice, you do not have the intelligence. Those who have all the privileges expect to be given more, and that helps build up their expectations and confidence that to those who have more will be given, and to those who have not – no education, wrong sex, wrong color, or a school child, with no parent who speaks up for them; all will fail. But we often help those who have the loudest voice, or the constant presence, not those who do not have the advocates or resources. Of course it was Jesus who observed this unfortunate tendency of society, and became an advocate for those who society shunned as less than conventional successes.
Yes, Jesus was saying those who have more will get more, but there is a flip side to this that is embodied in the cloudless blue sky. If you are so perfect and lovely, you are going to drop the ball. George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “there are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” This tends to temper our desires to have more and be more than our neighbors. In fact we understand life and its trials, and often learn more from it through our failures than our successes. In a recent Globe column Donald Murray wrote, that too often in school we give the impression that life should be a series of successes, as if we were all monkeys always swinging easily from tree to tree, when in life we often fall and have to find a way to get up the tree again.” Murray writes that it served him better in school to forget the past and start anew. Critically he said that in a new school he was able to work on the task at hand building on the strengths he had within rather than the weaknesses others saw in him. Too often those weakness become the stigmata we feel we carry around – troublemaker, talks too much, can’t spell. Every student wants to make it up the tree, but we often fail to discover what will help them begin to climb, or give them the help they need. I recently heard that 85% of the students in our middle school need remedial reading help. Maybe this is a little late to be offering reading assistance to those who need it. Why do administrators continue to refuse to teach phonics? Here is an instance where seeing and admitting a failure might help system administrators move on to teach in a new and different and perhaps more successful way. We learn from our failures, but first we must recognize them. Igor Stravinsky understood this when he wrote, “I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions not my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge.
People are not going to learn anything if they operate under the assumption that they already know it all. Sometimes student ministers (this will sound like a warning to Mark) assume that they know everything about ministry because they have vast experience as lay leaders. So they operate in a church like I have nothing to teach them, and are just jumping through the hoops in order to be certified. They may find that their wisdom from their particular lay setting has no relation to a different situation where they are the minister of the congregation rather than an active member. Student ministers would be better off failing than making a situation into something it is not. What if we failed to correct Mark last week after he tried to sit us down following the first hymn?. Now he could have beat himself up, but more important he learned how we do it, and next time, God willing, he will do it the right way. We hope. But he will learn more about leading worship, preaching, teaching and ministry in general if he learns from his mistakes, and we give him some honest feedback rather than just tell him how wonderful he is. Once in a while that might be good. But you will ruin him if you do it all the time.
One of the problems with the pressure to succeed in our world is that the fear of failure can lead to severe emotional distress. This fear of performing, that was discussed in the article on Stage fright, is powerful among those of us who do public speaking for a living. When I was a student I was plagued by dreams of terrible things occurring during the services I conducted – words that made no sense juxtaposed with flying objects and incessant offerings. No, I am not talking about a typical First Parish worship service. I was scared to go before those people – What if I sounded and looked stupid? What if my clothes fell off? What if they laughed at me? I was exposed, as the article says, to my own personal terror and shame. This is a trial and a challenge to any public performer. We may feel like we are being judged or evaluated constantly, and could always be shouted down for the things we say or do. In his fear, one of my predecessors in Palmer used to vomit before every service. I hope that relieved his anxiety. Sometimes we preachers may feel like saying, I’ll show them how talented or smart I am. I find the famous actor Laurence Olivier’s response enlightening. Before every show, he stood behind the curtain muttering at the audience, “you bastards.” Perhaps he sought the courage to say you will not get to me with your criticism of my failings. But he was also gearing up his inner strength to show them all of his great talent. I will show you.
We might ask what makes for success in preaching? Unlike the stage, preaching is dependent upon a relationship built upon time and trust. Usually a minister and congregation know one another, often over a period of some years. This is different than proving your talent to an audience. Young actors will learn from their mistakes, but this is usually in many apprentice appearances. Here there is an element of trust that if you make a mistake it will be all right. You will be forgiven. Often this trusts allows a preacher to say something that he/she might not otherwise for fear of condemnation. Obviously we must use some discretion, but there is also a level of support that exists. So why the fright or worse, the vomiting? There is still that pressure to perform, that drive for success that makes us anxious. We all wonder , will I be good enough? Will they continue to accept me, to respond to me? And so even if stage fright gets better over time, the exposure of all these ideas and feelings to a group is anxiety producing. It helps to see certain smiling faces out there who encourage simply by their presence.
Ultimately, we must face the challenge. Each of us goes through this in whatever test or job demand is before us. There is pressure on each of us in this situation. The pressure to be a success in our chosen field or in a given job, or even on a certain Sunday will often make us crazy literally. My best friend in seminary decided to leave the ministry because he felt he could not be good enough on Sunday morning week after week after week. The pressure to produce a sermon was too much. He had the fright before he even got to the stage. He worked for Target Corporation for 25 years in personnel. Now he works for the UUA, and is back in fellowship as a minister, BUT, as an administrator he does not have to preach each week.
When it comes to reflecting upon securing success, I think first of my father. He came from a family that had been successful in business at one time, but then was wiped out by the depression. That failure led to further problems, because the worse things became, the more his father drank. My father was determined to make a success of himself, and give his family all the benefits of that economic boon. But the pressure he put on himself, and the effort he made eventually led to some kind of emotional breakdown, although the details are shrouded in family mystery. From the period between 1946 and 1966 he worked constantly courting customers and driving trucks. By the time I was 15 years old, what had been a constant struggle to keep the business above water became a booming success. This success was so evident that he was able to spend less time literally working, and more time enjoying those things in life that he loved – gardening, tennis and fishing. We used to laugh that he was semiretired in his later working years. All he did was go on a Saturday collection route, and pick up the money that was owed him.
Somehow he was able to feel secure enough in himself that he did not have to continually drive himself to further successes. He no longer had to work, at least in the self-evident way of constant labor that had been true before. Who knows what kind of business contacts he was cultivating? This reminds me of the jokes people sometimes make about ministers. What an easy job. You only have to work an hour a week. This view emphasizes the most public part of the job and ignores everything else. It is hard to tell what work is sometimes. It often feels like everything I see and do and read is sermon fodder. So even if you come into the office, and I seem to be staring off into space, I am not loafing, but contemplating the cares of all of you and the world. Yet we have often had a hard time not working in this country. Benjamin Franklin gave us the archetype of the workaholic, and we know from statistics that that kind of obsession with work is worse than ever. We have disdain for the image of the idler in America, which argues that the highest calling is to do as little as possible. Yet most of us feel immense guilt if we are sitting around. Few of us can be the slacker like Melville’s famous character Bartleby the Scrivener, a copyist in a law office, who when he is invited to get to work says, “I would prefer not to.” Few of us are able to define success as doing the least possible.
This past June our former intern minister found himself disappointed with some of his colleagues that he met at General Assembly. The reason was that rather than getting to know each other, or finding ways to discuss support or collegiality in ministry, he said the ministers he met were obsessed with numbers and size, women as well as men. This gets at the heart of our understanding of success. We fear we have not achieved success unless we are bigger and better than the next person. I can then put you down for not being my equal. While size may impress some people, it certainly does not equate necessarily with quality of relationships.
Henry David Thoreau is an interesting example of one of our forebears who struggled with vocation. How did he define success? Prior to being a writer, he was a pencil maker, the family business, and then a teacher. He had innovative ideas about teaching that eventually led to his demise. He was fired because he refused to practice corporal punishment. As a teacher, he certainly did not define his success ratio by how well his students scored on some test. Thoreau had the crazy idea of making education a pleasant thing for both the teacher and the student. He believed a teacher would be most helpful to the student, if they were learning together, that there might be some kind of relationship where they were fellow students together. Teaching could stand some of this enthusiasm and relationship with students.
Like the critics of his own day, I am afraid most of us would not accept Thoreau’s idea of success. After one of his lectures, a reviewer commented, “It is rather curious to see a gentleman of cultivated intellect retiring from the world, dividing his time betwixt literary labors and cooking, hunting and fishing.” The world couldn’t stand that success for him, especially in the wake of his “experiment” at Walden Pond. This became a deep exploration of the world and all its knowledge and mysteries. He wrote, “The fact is, Man need not live by the sweat of his brow—unless he sweats easier than I do—he needs so little.”  Living the simple life became Thoreau’s success. While few of us might want to emulate him, and give up our comforts, we still feel the urge to move our life ever so slightly in the direction of our dreams of finding success in what we love and in simpler living, as my father did with his garden and his fishing. He discovered, I think that he had enough of the world’s success, enough struggle, and then needed to find pleasure, find joy in what he loved. He was lucky. Few of us feel as though we can stop working.
Yet I have found that success for me is carving out time for those things I love – teaching and discovering historical paths. I am lucky enough to make them part of my job. What is true about this is that the greatest love is in working with others, and seeing them get excited about what I get excited about. The problem with our usual understanding of securing success is that it centers upon putting someone else down or getting what fills my needs or my children’s needs, and ignores the needs of others and of systems. We won’t be able to help our children find true success if we only project our definition of it upon them. Success must be not a measure of comparison, but a measure of the depth of relationship by listening and observing rather than demanding they fit our definition of success, like girls I have known who did not fit the parental prescription for beauty. When I was young my father used to retell the story of Alexander the Great, who conquered the world, and then wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. When you measure success by size and conquering others, then it is difficult to admit failure, as we see with our President, and when we only seek to be better than all the rest, as the commercial says, you end up weeping because there is only success, but no meaning to it, except more success.
This is why when we think about teaching our children to achieve success in the world, it is more than the test or the grade. You see this in the lovely film “Akeelah and the Bee” when Akeelah purposefully misspells a words in order to maintain the relationship rather than beat the opponent. What do you sacrifice in the path to success? I know for myself I find success mostly not with the size of my church, but rather with when people are pleased with what I do, or what we accomplish together, but it has taken me a long time to realize this. Does someone recognize my work as good? My colleague at First Church Boston made me feel affirmed this week, not by saying how much larger and more important his church is than mine, but by telling me he wished I wrote more for public consumption, because everything I write is good. He made me feel like what I do is successful. What is success for children? Often we get caught up in fighting to give them everything they need, but we lose track of the larger picture of nurturing emotional and spiritual needs. How do they respond to others, rather than how do they dominate or be better than others?
Levi had a birthday party on Friday with some friends of his from Watertown. One of these enterprising young boys had a lawn mowing business, and had bought his own weed whacker. I think I am going to hire him for First Parish. He had brought his own money to the party, and purchased his own game room tokens. At the end of the party he had many tokens left. We talked about saving them or giving them to other kids at the party, but he said, no, I just want to give them to somebody, and so he just went up to a stranger in the game room, and handed him a cup of tokens. It was moving to see his indiscriminate kindness. I think with our drive for success, sometimes we forget that success can be measured in whether our kids are nice and not mean, whether they are giving, and not selfish, whether they listen to others. Success is found in the quality of our relationships. Thoreau realized this when he emulated native culture that there is a cycle to gift giving. The fish we take from the river is not merely consumed, but we give back to the river, or to others what we have been given, and we continue the cycle. In our drive for success we have often failed to keep a cycle of giving going. It is simple to just take, but real success is founded when we teach our children that you don’t just take what you can get for your own success or edification, but rather that what you take is a gift from someone or from nature, and it is up to you, to have real success, to give it back, and keep the spirit alive of gratitude, of relationship, of continuity, and of blessings for a life that has been given by those who came before.

Closing Words – from Henry David Thoreau

I have learned this at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.

“What, Me Worry?” by Mark W. Harris – June 4, 2006

“What, Me Worry?” by Mark W. Harris – June 4, 2006

“What, Me Worry?” Mark W. Harris

June 4, 2006 First Parish of Watertown

Opening Words – “Consider the Lilies” by Stephen Shick

It is not newness we seek
but the fresh return of the eternal.
He said, the truth is not hidden in the mountains, it is not far off,
it is in your hand, your heart, your mouth.
“So do it,” he said.
He spoke in parables, mostly about money
and the truth it can’t buy.
Consider the mustard seed, he said,
how it grows into the largest shrub.
From it, he said,
know your true wealth and power.
Consider the birds that nest in the shrub, he said,
how they sing in the spring.
From them, he said
know your true heart’s song.
Consider the lilies, he said,
and don’t worry. The truth is at hand.
With the seed and the lilies
nothing new arrives,
and even the mockingbird
sings songs that other birds once knew.
Nothing arrives with newness.
All is waiting to be reborn.

Sermon

Do you ever worry? Not me. Why worry just slides off my back like water off a fish. In fact, whenever I visit my brother he brings out one of those battery powered fish that wiggles and winks, and guess which song that fish performs for my boys? This brook trout croons Bobby McFerrin’s infamous tune, “Don’t worry, be happy.” And I suppose at first glance the life of a fish would seem to be pretty worry free, just splashing around in the pond all day. But in truth, if I were a fish, I’d be concerned about all the bad things that could happen. I’d worry about some mean bigger fish coming along to swallow me up. I’d worry about some relentless fisherman tying the most beautiful lure, and I would suck it right up and be gone. I suppose I could hope for one of these catch and release Unitarian type of fisherman, but the percentage of UUs out fishing is probably pretty low. They’d say it wasn’t productive enough. No UU’s, Not with my luck. My fisherman would want to kill his prey and throw him on ice for later. Then there’s the pollution making me sick, or the flooding that could wash me away. All kinds of things could happen. I could even get eaten. I’d worry myself sick if I were a fish.
My wife Andrea tells me I am a worrier. I don’t know why she says that. Just because I use to lay in bed thinking that the slight bow in our roof in Maine would mean that the roof was going to collapse at any time, and leave our house in a pile of rubble was no indication that I was a worrier, was it? Glad we sold it. Just because I have to hover over my children like a hawk for fear that I might lose them doesn’t mean I am a worrier does it? Glad they are getting older. Just because I see every odd shaped or odd colored mole becoming a deathly disease doesn’t mean I am a worrier. I am just cautious, concerned, involved and responsible, right? Well, can’t say I’ll never get sick can I? In fact disaster could befall my house, my kids, or me. We can take reasonable precautions to prevent these things from occurring. There are structural engineers that can examine houses, there are rules that children can follow about not taking unnecessary risks, and we can try to live lives that help us live longer and better. And one of those things that would help us live longer and better would be to not worry so much.
It is sometimes said that studies show that belonging to a church will help you live longer. Does this mean that those who have faith will worry less? Once upon a time the stress over whether or not you were saved and going to heaven was a significant source of worry for people. Puritans were constantly examining themselves to determine if God had shed his grace upon them, and chosen them to be among the elect. So there was constant worry, if and when you would feel God’s saving love. The alternative was worry about burning in the fires of hell for all eternity. I think at one time this kind of preoccupation with whether you were predestined for salvation or not was worrisome to people, especially when life was so short, nasty and brutish. But this type of worry seems less relevant now especially with liberal religion’s 19th century contribution that everyone who developed good moral character would be saved. Universalists, especially offered a kind of “don’t worry, God loves you and will save you anyway” faith. We were the first worry-free religion.
Religion traditions that promise salvation provide some insight into how we can respond to the worries that beset us. If a person was worried about whether or not they would go to heaven, they were told they would be rewarded for acting in the kindest, most responsible fashion. While few Unitarian Universalists these days believe that God plays some kind of tit for tat game to achieve eternal life, we have always emphasized the positive role each one of us can play in overcoming worries that plague us. Mother Jones, who was called the Miner’s Angel, and was active in labor reform 100 years ago, was famous for the saying, “don’t mourn , organize.” This fits those of us who are worriers because we tend to worry endlessly about things like health, money, or schools, but not be able to constructively act in response to these worries.
In the reading from Nancy Mairs’ memoir, she tells us how her son Matthew has chronic health problems right from birth. She has a legitimate worry, and recognizes it as such. Something is wrong. Unfortunately, she has no support to affirm that. Her mother says that she could not stand to take the child, and the father denies that there is anything to worry about. For one thing she says he is constitutionally inclined to leaps of faith. In other words, he doesn’t worry at all, but believes everything will be alright. Second, he is not around enough to even know the truth. He might recognize that there is something worth worrying about if he were. Even the doctor refuses to listen. So she must continue to find the strength of heart to believe that something is wrong, even if no one backs her up. We are reminded that we must act when something is a legitimate worry. Too many of us procrastinate, or ignore, or hide from things that actually worry us, so that we can simply worry some more. Here we must act on our worries.
Arnold Lobel tells a Frog and Toad story called “Tomorrow.” Toad woke up one morning and realized his house was a mess. Frog confirmed this, but Toad pulled the covers over his head saying he would clean it tomorrow. Today he thought, I will take life easy. Frog said, your pants and jacket are lying on the floor. But Toad replied that he would pick them up tomorrow. Then the litany continues. Your sink is filled with dishes – “tomorrow.” There is dust on your chairs – “tomorrow.” Windows need scrubbing – “tomorrow.” Plants need watering – “tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.” Just then Toad sat up, I feel down in the dumps, he said. He began to worry. “I am thinking about tomorrow, and all the things I have to do.” Now we all know people who would say, “oh it will just get dirty again.” But in this story Toad realizes that if he picked up his pants and all the rest, he will not have to work so hard tomorrow. Then he did it all. “Now I feel better. I don’t have to worry about tomorrow. Now I can save tomorrow for something I really want to do.” What’s that?” Frog says. “Just take it easy.” Then he pulled the covers over his head, and went to sleep. At least, he doesn’t have to worry. Do your teeth worry you? Go to the dentist. Does the size or color of a mole bother you? Get it checked. Does it seem like your kids are not getting any help or any respect? Demand that you be listened to. Don’t worry. Act on your worries, or as Mother Jones said, organize.
The second thing we need to do with our worries is to have reassurance that what we are worried about has legitimacy. Nancy Mairs’ husband in our reading , offers no assurance to her legitimate worry, but basically tells her she is imagining the problem with the baby. What we usually don’t need is someone saying, stop worrying so much. More importantly we need someone to listen to our worries so that we feel supported in our concerns. In Nancy Mairs case, her husband seems to imply that her worries are not real, but a symptom of her craziness. More than anything worrying shows how much we care. It is not pathologically self-serving, but rather a sign of our tremendous love and compassion for another that we need to share with another who will then offer reassurance. We all need things to assure us and assuage our worries. While someone listening to us helps, her husband’s willingness to stay with the baby or even figure out a plan of action might have helped. If we are worried about safety, then we can use locks. If we are worried about a pain, then a positive test result may alleviate our worries. If we know a specialist is actually working with our child, then we may worry less, and consequently have hope that somebody is doing something about this worry.
Everyone carries insurance of one form or another We have health insurance not to prevent bodily illnesses or health problems, but to help us pay for those maladies when they do strike. We have car insurance, not to prevent accidents, but to help us pay for damage inflicted when large metal objects collide. We have home owners insurance , not to prevent theft or fire, but to help us pay for costly replacements when they are stolen or burned. All these forms of insurance may help alleviate worries of one kind or another. Those who sell life insurance tell us we won’t have to worry about our families financial future if we carry their policy. It is important for a worrier to realize one important thing about insurance. It is not insurance of your life, but insurance on your life. There is no insurance of your life. If we live in the world – own a house, drive a car, parent a child, we take risks every single day. We take precautions crossing a street. Heavy traffic may worry some more than others. But if we refuse to cross the road, we never get to the other side. Here is where worry can dominate a life, and we miss the joy of living because everything we might do worries us, could hurt us, and therefore we end up doing nothing. So we need assurance that trying new things or taking risks is a good thing. We grow, we experience, we learn, and we enjoy life. So if you’ve always wanted to do that or go there, we need to let the worry of disaster not take precedent over the more likely adventure of emotional, spiritual and educational gain.
So we have gauged whether a worry is legitimate or not, and if it is, then we should do something. Second, we need reassurance that what we worry about is worthy of support, things that makes us feel insured in a variety of ways. A third thing we can do with things that worry us is avoid them. I don’t mean put your head in the sand over legitimate worries, but rather literally stay away from things that really can hurt us. In the Islamic tradition there is a Sufi tale about a man who was invited to go lion hunting. When he returned he was asked how was the hunt? He replied, “oh, it was very successful.” “Why was that?” his friend asked. And he said, “because we didn’t meet any lions.” Many of us worry every day that we are going to meet a lion. A simple solution to this dread of lions, or those things that we fear are going to eat us up, is to avoid them. My boys are afraid of dogs, and despite the fact that most dog owners insist, “my dog doesn’t bite,” some dogs do bite. This reminds me of when I went back to Pemaquid Point, a couple of years ago to see the site of my near death encounter with an ocean wave. Andrea who had witnessed this harrowing event did not want to come with us, and see the place again. When I brought the boys down on to the rocks and began walking around, I began to worry about their safety, and said to myself, this is a scary place. Why go to places, why meet people who are
just going to bring you more stress, more worries. Sometimes with worry, it is better to stay away.
Up until now, we have mostly considered how we respond to legitimate worries through action, reassurance or avoidance, but for many of us worries are often making a mountain out of a molehill. Whether it is inheriting the worrisome genes of my mother, who panicked over her baby (that’s me) playing in the woods, or the human inclination to worry over eons of time in life and death moments with real lions with no greater weapon than intelligence, and the ability to climb a tree, I am as my wife says, a worrier. I tend to lock doors, look behind me, and follow small children around like a magnet. I try to do all those things I have counseled in this sermon. See legitimate worries and act. Reassure myself not to worry by remembering that people have told me that it is safe, or it will go well. What I sometimes fail to remember is that people are usually forgiving and the world will go on. As a minister I sometimes worry that what I say will have an negative impact on someone. It is natural that we would worry about what pain our words can inflict. Words are my life’s work. So is all that worry about the impact of my words or offending others or that I will say the wrong thing a legitimate concern?
Recently, I was in a panic over something I had done. I spent the better part of a week thinking this person is really going to be offended that I did this without their permission. And I kept worrying telling myself I should have consulted them. Oh, why did I act so compulsively? And then after the week was up, I saw the person and said, did you notice what I did? I hope I didn’t overstep my bounds. I was all ready to be reprimanded or attacked. They simply responded, “oh , it was no big deal.” I thought, all this worry for nothing. They didn’t care. It was no catastrophe. I was brought back to that favorite magazine of my childhood, Mad Magazine. There was this goofy, freckle-faced boy with a smirk on his face, saying, What, Me Worry? Alfred E. Newman was an ever present reminder that some worries we harbor are a ridiculous waste of energy and effort. Come on he was saying, have fun, relax and stop worrying about everything all the time. So often we worriers expect the worst. We see disasters around every corner, but with a little reassurance and a little trust in life we would realize that 99 times out of 100, there is no disaster, there are no lions today. There is nothing to worry about. And in those instances of personal enlightenment we can enjoy the beauty of the lilies as they bloom, or the sun as it sets over the horizon, or the smiles of trust that exist in the eyes of those we love. We all have three kinds of relationships – with the self, with others and with the universe, the source of life. We worry about our own health and well being. We worry about how others perceive us, and how we perform in society, and we worry about where life will take us in this strange and wondrous journey. Some worries we can do something about and some we cannot. Some worries are legitimate and some are not. Some worries are always going to be there, and some never existed. The answer: Do what you can, with what you can, for as long as you can, and for the rest, don’t worry. Last night I saw the movie Akeela and the Bee. It is the story of an African American girl from South Los Angeles who beats all odds to win the National Spelling Bee. At the end of the story we hear that we cannot really worry about tomorrow until it comes, and why worry about yesterday, when it is already gone. It is the love we share today that is important – all those family and friends who helped Akeela be a great speller. The key was not about worrying about failure, but about having the faith to believe in your own power, your own love. Consider the lilies, Jesus said, they grow, and grow and grow. They are so beautiful, as are you, as are others, as is life. I do enough worrying about the world, about my kids and about doing the right thing. Summer is coming. Time to do a little less worrying. Save it for winter.

Closing Words – “The Sun” by Mary Oliver
Have you ever seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

And into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone –
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on it heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance —
and have you ever felt for anything

such wild love —
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun,
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty handed —
or have you too
turned from this world —

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

“Small Change” by Mark W. Harris – May 14, 2006

“Small Change” by Mark W. Harris – May 14, 2006

May 14, 2006 – First Parish of Watertown

Sermon – “Small Change” Mark W. Harris

Opening Words – “Give Us the Child” by Sara Moores Campbell

Give us the spirit of the child

Give us the child who lives within —

the child who trusts,
the child who imagines,
the child who sings,
the child who receives without reservation,
the child who gives without judgment.

Give us a child’s eyes, that we may receive the beauty and freshness of this day like a sunrise;

Give us a child’s ears, that we may hear the music of mythical times;

Give us a child’s heart, that we may be filled with wonder and delight;

Give us a child’s faith, that we may be cured of our cynicism;

Give us the spirit of the child, who is not afraid to need; who is not afraid to love.

Reading

Juggler by Richard Wilbur
 
A ball will bounce; but less and less. It’s not
A light-hearted thing, resents its own resilience.
Falling is what it loves, and the earth falls
So in our hearts from brilliance,
Settles and is forgot.
It takes a sky-blue juggler with five red balls

To shake our gravity up. Whee, in the air
The balls roll around, wheel on his wheeling hands,
Learning the ways of lightness, alter to spheres
Grazing his finger ends,
Cling to their courses there,
Swinging a small heaven about his ears.

But a heaven is easier made of nothing at all
Than the earth regained, and still and sole within
The spin of worlds, with a gesture sure and noble
He reels that heaven in,
Landing it ball by ball,
And trades it all for a broom, a plate, a table.

Oh, on his toe the table is turning, the broom’s
Balancing up on his nose, and the plate whirls
On the tip of the broom! Damn, what a show, we cry:
The boys stamp, and the girls
Shriek, and the drum booms
And all come down, and he bows and says good-bye.

Sermon

Tomorrow, May 15th is the anniversary. What, you say you don’t know what anniversary? Well, it is the day when Horton the Elephant was in the Jungle of Nool, and he heard a small speck of dust talking to him. You may remember that this piece of dust is actually a tiny planet, where there is a city called “Who-ville”, where the most miniscule creatures live. Even Horton cannot see these little creatures , but he can hear them due to this wonderful ears. They proceed to ask him to protect them from harm, and Horton agrees. Thereafter Horton develops a repeating mantra “a person’s a person, no matter how small”. His respect for and protection of these small creatures leads to his being ridiculed by the other animals, because he believes in something that they are unable to see or hear. Horton tells the Whos that they needed to make themselves heard to the other animals, or they will become part of “beezlenut stew.” We could draw lots of meaning from this story. Every small world needs to be listened to and respected lest it be swallowed. A small voice can be heard, and it will make a difference in the world, but it is up to us who have small voices or who hear small voices to demand that they be listened to.
Someone once speculated that Horton Hears a Who was Dr. Seuss’ protest against the atom bomb. I remember seeing pictures of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, and I recall it was nicknamed “big boy.” We often have had a problem with size, assuming in our culture that bigger is better, including church size and house size so that we define ourselves as a small church meaning insignificant or lucky to be alive, and yet we are a vibrant institution. With houses there is a trend to build McMansions on postage stamp size plots of land without regard for efficiency or need, but apparently simply to show off that big is more important or prestigious. Suddenly there is a panic in our culture over super sizing all the fatty foods we consumed because everyone is overweight. This has especially been noted in the obesity rate for children. Many years ago E.F. Schumacher tried to convince us that Small is Beautiful, but small cars were soon replaced by SUVs, and children ended up expanding their smallness because they ate too much, and never got enough exercise.
As many of you have heard before, I was overweight as a child, and had poor balance and was not very coordinated. I learned to ride a bicycle when I was 18. This made physical feats performed by circus artists especially magical to me. When I tried to swing on a high bar or juggle balls it felt like I was carrying the weight of the world with the one and watching falling spheres with the other. How could anyone watch one while catching the other, while the third was in the air? It seemed impossible, and yet my eyes convinced me of this truth. Richard Wilbur in “The Juggler” reminds us that the balls want to fall, and it takes a juggler to shake our gravity up. They did seem a small heaven against the sky, in perfect synch, and continuously in motion. “Oh if only I could do this, I thought. And then it was over, and he took the heaven back into himself to go on to the next magic trick. It was a small heaven of perfection around his ears, almost like a universe in motion. It looked like one of those solar system models. Whoville was also that small universe in motion. The juggler reminds us that things tend to fall to earth unless we hold them up in a juggle. And Dr. Seuss reminds us that tiny things in this universe go unseen, and can be easily swamped in neglect or abuse by those who are more powerful, and so may we never forget “a person’s a person no matter how small.”
My youngest son has been having a problem with recurring warts on his feet. We often have a negative notion of warts, and so when we talk about a family member we say we love or accept them warts and all, meaning all of their faults or negative characteristics. I had a problem with warts when I was small, and remembering my dermatologist using liquid nitrogen to try to get rid of them. My older son Joel had wart problems, too. The science writer Lewis Thomas says that warts are wonderful structures. Now we usually think of them as small annoying growths that we find hideous, and want to rid ourselves of. These tough, impenetrable mounds are actually the elaborate reproductive apparatus of a virus. The wart, Thomas says, is what the virus truly wants; it can flourish only in cells undergoing this kind of overgrowth. I have heard all kinds of cures for warts, including gasoline and recently we tried duct tape. The thing about warts is that they tend to go away. In fact, they come to the end of their lives and disappear. They are also open to suggestion. Thomas says that tests results show that we can be hypnotized, and rid ourselves of warts. As bizarre as this sounds, Thomas confirms that the unconscious can figure out how to manipulate the mechanisms needed to get around the virus, and for deploying the various cells needed for tissue rejection. I know that shutting off the blood supply to an area will kill off unwanted tissue. Lewis says that this suggests that there is a super intelligence in each of us, that can help us deal with the nature of certain diseases, but we simply don’t understand it. This control of reproducing viruses in us might be a key to health and wholeness.
What is intriguing about this to someone who struggled with the annoyance of warts is that something this small and revolting to us, might be a key to how we could understand and manage certain diseases in us. It is a small and complex heaven inside of us. Religiously speaking, cultures have often imagined God as the large God who is the ruler of the world. In the Hebrew scriptures the revelation of God to Elijah in I Kings comes with the expectation that God will be revealed in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the end God comes as the still, small voice. This is the small, quiet voice of God that we must stop and listen to you. What child of my generation can forget that Walt Disney imagined the guide of our conscience to be Jiminy Cricket, that small creature who told us to look within to see what was the right thing to do in difficult circumstances. When the Puritans feared that God was angry with them, they thought it was expressed through some large scale disease that struck the whole colony or a terrible storm. God was a big, powerful voice when he expressed displeasure with human sinfulness.
This distinction between a large God and a small God is what the novelist Arundhati Roy refers to in The God of Small Things. For her the big God howls like a hot wind or demands our allegiance in prostrate submissive form. We bow before this big God. Theologically, we would mostly argue that the big God that ancient cultures conceived of as running the universe no longer exists. It is Roy’s small God who is cozy and contained, and private and limited that seems more approachable to us. This cozy God is with us in the every day embracing of our children, or in the trial of quiet sitting with a pain or illness and finding the inner resources to deal with it through talking with our friends, or finding a diversion through working or the like. The small God must skip to the beat of the music, and juggle balls in a small heaven, and find little things to enjoy like the bursting of a flower in bud, or the rhythmic motion of digging in the dirt to till the garden. The small God knows there is a universe in motion out there, and it wants us to notice every small part, even the warts, because they all play a part in the reproductive generations that look to the future. The small God helps us realize that even when there are tragedies all around us there is much beauty in life that we can grasp hold of and experience. So when we find joy in the small heaven of juggling, we can get through tragic moments, and know these small events give us the promise of life and joy. It is akin to Jesus saying the last shall be first, or see the power in a mustard seed. The most insignificant thing holds all the beauty of the universe in its life giving potential. The acorn becomes the giant tree in nature, or the smallest thing holds the potential for the greatest spiritual depth. While the small Gods may be our personal issues and daily life, they are truly the stuff that will make it possible to see a big God, not in the traditional sense of creator and controller, but in our connectedness with all of life. We cannot understand the big God unless we see and listen to the Whos. God or the divine is in the details: in the plant we place in the wet ground that it might grow, in the ice that cools our hot tongues in summer to melt to refreshment, in the smile and glowing eyes we impart to the stranger that says yes, we can know one another.
In a practical sense this also helps us reflect on the role of children in our culture. Today we have dedicated two lives to the care of this church, and have charged their parents with the awesome responsibility of bringing up these young lives to reference all of life, and develop their own ability to love and understand others. “A person’s a person no matter how small” is a vital lesson here as well. Children play an odd role in our culture. Modern life has made being a child very difficult because too often we take childhood away from our kids and give them a complicated schedule to fill up every minute of their lives, when they and we could spend much more time just being together playing games and taking walks on the beach while collecting rocks and shells. One thing we could do for our small charges on this day when we reflect on families a great deal is to give them more time to just enjoy their lives and not plan on what might bring success, but what might bring joy. I also think we share too much of adult conversation with children, and make them into confidants of too much pressure and information that is better left in the adult world. As with the fun times we often deprive them of, I think when it comes to information as well, let kids be kids. The third thing that concerns me is that we rarely listen to children. Yes, we give kids a lot of things, and we may even spend a lot of time with them, but how often do we truly listen to what they have to say. There is a small God to be discovered in a conversation with a child. Just yesterday we saw the new movie, “Hoot,” with our kids. It tells the story of endangered, burrowing owls whose habitat is threatened by a developer of a pancake house. Three teenagers make their small voices heard in a variety of clandestine ways to protect the even smaller voices of the owls.
There is a cosmos within each of us waiting to be discovered. It is not that gigantic thing out there in space. It is that small universe of life waiting to be born in us, or small discoveries we make on a daily basis. For the past couple of months there has been a Wayside pulpit quotation out front that I just love. It us by James Freeman Clarke and it says, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.“ Most of us have come to realize that there is no great God providing overriding meaning to our existence. Life is made of fits and starts and bits of meaning here and there, and now and then. We would like that big God, but he is not going to suddenly appear. I remember quoting Rosa Parks on MLK Day, that she just wanted a seat on the bus because she was tired from work. Of course it was more than that, but that small thing did start a great big revolution. It was her standing up for herself, it was her compassion for others, these are the every day small Gods that will help us build a big God.
Remembering all the mothers of all the generations doing small things in a great way is fitting on Mother’s Day. May we listen. May we guide. May we embrace. May we teach. All these small things done with love and understanding make their own earthquake when we find the divine within the ordinary. Our former intern, Sue Kingman shared the following poem called Song of Small Wonders by Carole Fontaine in a recent newsletter from Sanford, Maine. It is more about the cumulative effect of small acts of justice and mercy, like bringing bread to the hungry, or visiting the sick. It also tells us that all small things build to make a whole. The child who is listened to, and given time and attention will know a larger wholeness in his/her family life. The Whos down in Whoville represent all the small people of the world who demand to be seen and heard. The other day Asher and I were walking home, and he said, I know that spring has returned because the birds are in the trees singing to us again. The small things that we listen for and do are the things that truly connect us to each other and the larger whole.

We say it doesn’t matter;
We think it can not matter;
Our miniscule acts of justice
Trickling into a bucket of grief.

Such little works, so dispersed,
Only one tiny resistance,
Then another and another;
Is this the way a flood begins?

Bit by bit, we stack our deeds,
Like bags of seed or lifesaving grain,
With determination that will follow,
Providing more. again. again.

We make of them a bulwark of caring
A seawall when tragedy seems to sway
Our fragile bridges with awesome waves.
We view to cross them anyway.

It doesn’t seem like it can matter.
That we could bend such global pain,
Until we note the sound of thunder
Followed by drop after drop of rain.

The rivers flow, but the sea does not fill;
Yet tides of love swell repeatedly,
And sweep their knowledge to our shore’
Justice grows from you, from me.

From all of us together,
Undeterred by compassion’s drought,
Undaunted by the size of tasks,
Unabashed by deluge of doubt.

We admit to no futility —
One drop can color the whole wide sea.

Closing Words – from I Kings 19

And behold, the Lord passed by and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”

Page 1 of 212