First Parish of Watertown


“Christmas Eve Remembered” by Mark W. Harris – December 24, 2007

“Christmas Eve Remembered” by Mark W. Harris – December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve 2007

Opening Words

Annie Dillard , An American Childhood

Late at night on Christmas Eve, my mother carried us each to our high bedroom, and darkened the room, and opened the window, and held us awed in the freezing stillness, saying – – and we could hear the edge of tear in her voice — “Do you hear them? Do you hear the bells, the little bells, on Santa’s sleigh?” We marveled and drowsed, smelling the piercingly cold night and the sweetness of Mother’s warm neck, hearing in her voice so much pent emotion, feeling the familiar strength in the crook of her arms, and looking out over the silent streetlights and chilled stars over the rooftops of the town. “Very faint, and far away – can you hear them coming?” And we could hear them coming, very faint and far away, the bells on the flying sleigh.

Christmas Eve Remembered

Like Annie Dillard, Christmas Eve was always a magical time for me growing up. My father was the story teller in our family, and because five years separated me from my other three siblings, I was the happy recipient of his sole attention long after my brothers and sister stopped wondering about when Santa would arrive at our house. I have never listened so intently in all my life. Dad would speak about Santa readying his sleigh, and I would picture a mountain of toys, and reindeer stomping with their hooves while breathing streamers of frosty air. What I waited for of course was that moment when he would visit my family. Behind our house was a huge pasture, with darkness covering the woods beyond, and moonlight reflected on the fir trees half way across the expanse of field. It snowed more then, or at least that’s my memory, (kind of like this year), and so the field always literally glistened in the moonlight as the whipped cream mounds of snows curved up and down below my window and out on the back lawn. But I never expected Santa to appear while I was looking out the window on this scenery below. I had the impression that if you looked, Santa would instantly disappear from sight. And so I could only imagine this sleek red sleigh, gliding across the snow covered field with tinkling bells, and quietly snorting reindeer with the merry driver planning his next stop of countless visits to boys and girls all over the world. This was the scene in my mind’s eye. All I could do was lay there after my father had recounted the tale of Santa’s annual return to our rural home. My ears strained and strained to just hear some inkling that this was the moment when he went by. My ears were so tense and my eyes so squinted. I would lay and listen. Lay and listen. Do you hear the sound beyond quiet? (pause – close your eyes and listen)

Finally, I would pass off to sleep, only to awaken to the wonder of Christmas morn, and the question, did he come? Even though Santa always did come with toys and candy that made me happy, it was that magic of the night before that I remember best. The night is that holy time, full of wonder and mystery. The star that signaled Jesus’ birth was seen at night. On another dark, cold night something special was about to occur. Maybe it was the same way the three kings or the shepherds felt as they approached the stable. It was that glorious anticipation, the sheer excitement that something incredibly great was gong to happen. Of course, eventually my dad stopped coming into my room with his wondrous tale of an overloaded sleigh gliding by my window. But I still dream about magical moments. I still wait in wonder and listen in anticipation. And I hear the hints of something wondrous happening – of human caring, of love come to flesh. This night let us remember, just as Jesus’ two parents hovered over him and dreamed dreams of what his future might be on this holy night. Nine months of anticipation to give birth to new hope and joy. I remember a story of wonder from one I loved, and I give thanks that there are those in our lives who help us dream dreams, who give us encouragement, and affirm us, who give us hope, and prepare us for the miracles that can come into our lives. They are the bearers of faith and joy. Those who wrap the gifts and hang the lights anticipate the labors of the season. Those who light the candles and remember in silence those who have gone before anticipate the quiet of the season. Those who hold the hand of another (as I invite you to do now), anticipate some difficult trial of life, and bring healing to lonely and grieving hearts. All are the bearers of hope that something wonderful is about to occur. Who knows what it may be? The story comes back to me on Christmas eve – anything can happen, and the excitement is not that it does, but in the believing that it is possible. May we believe in a future where wars cease, and we care for the earth, where we care for each other, and anticipate with great wonder the future we have together.


So many beautiful images cross our minds as we prepare to celebrate this holiday. The greens in our homes reminding us the sun will return, and light, and growth will come again, even in seasons of darkness and pain. Gifts under the tree and stockings hung with joy reminding us that sometimes we need to wait, be patient for promises still to come, and in time new opportunities, new relationships will occur in our lives. Singing together, carols raised in joy, lifting our voices together in common harmony reflecting the connections we make touching hearts and minds and souls. All these preparations have brought us to this night. Now we listen expectantly for the sounds that will herald the coming of this new day – the bells of joy, the carols of praise, the flickering candles of dreams, the loving words we speak to those who need our care. May the dreary and the cold be overthrown by the place in our hearts waiting birth. Let the promise of finding that which is lost guide us to heal wounds of misunderstanding or regret. Grant us peace with the world and peace in our lives. O sweet sounds of the season, flow over us and in us – Bells of new life and love, bells of gratitude, bells of peace. (RING) Amen.

“Picking the Dump” by Mark W. Harris, November 26, 2006

“Picking the Dump” by Mark W. Harris, November 26, 2006

“Picking the Dump” – Mark W. Harris

November 26, 2006 First Parish of Watertown –

Reading: Nehemiah 4:1-6


When I was in college I spent most of my summer vacations cleaning oil burners. On a given day my partner and I would collect an assortment of oil filters, air filters, buckets of soot, and other apparatus associated with oil heating systems, which was the family business. Then at the end of the day we would drive to the town dump. Before this time my impression of the dump was that it was a smelly place where you wanted to dump your refuse as quickly as possible and get out. Occasionally, the dump became a subject of conversation beyond the necessary family trips there. Townspeople sometimes became angry when out of towners dumped their trash in our dump. There were also more intriguing things about it. Young men would go there at night, flash their car lights, and shoot the rats that infested the place for live target practice. In the winter I heard it was the best place to go parking with your girlfriend. While this might seem odd, it was in fact the only out-of-the-way place that was plowed, and hopefully you did not get stuck. I never knew dumps could provide so much diversion or pleasure.
What really fascinated me about my summertime trips to the dump though, was watching my partner on the oil burner truck in action. He was an expert dump picker. I would stand before heaps of rubbish and see nothing, but he would poke and prod, and find all kinds of useful things for his home and his children. There would be discarded furniture, bicycle parts, old appliances, and much more. He found a use for what others no longer valued. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. These were the days when you could forage at will in the town dump. For a wide variety of environmental and regulatory reasons, this is no longer true. The amateur dump picker is a vanishing species.
Now you must pick from the street. It seems like every Tuesday, our Marshall Street trash day, I walk down our street, and spot something that makes me think, do we want or need that? Just last week there were the corn stacks that were an important decorative part of our Thanksgiving succah. I had also scavenged some hay bales, but it turned out they were wet and moldy, and made the church smell like a barn. You’ll be happy to know I saved them to make our Christmas pageant more realistic this year. I just haven’t told Roberta yet. We often see good looking bikes, desks and other assorted furniture on our walks around the neighborhood. But you have to be quick. If you drive or walk by and contemplate it for too long, someone else will grab up the good merchandise. There are amateur street pickers every where. My passion for this endeavor was ignited over a decade ago when one of our neighbors left three perfectly good wooden chairs in front of their house. They now adorn our home in Maine. And the boys new pool table that we played on over and over again this weekend? You guessed it. Our neighbors trash. So I often scour the streets looking for perfectly useable items. Forget watching the road if I am driving by, my eyed are focused on trash.. Now if you cannot bring yourself to prodding through trash, there is the more dainty alternative of tag sales, of which there is a proliferation. We are always looking for workers for our annual sale in May.
Finding a use for what others discard is a noble recyclable kind of philosophy. But you have to be careful. Many members of my own family have the New England disease of keeping everything and saying with their dying breath that there is a use for it somewhere or sometime. There is a Watertown resident on Catherine Road who has stirred up a controversy with her trash strewn house and yard, and she calls it environmental living. I doubt that is the case, but rather than responding to her pleas for help, our modern culture can only pursue litigation rather than looking at some of the root causes of the problem. There is something deeply profound in reusing that which we consume, in thinking about our purchases with the goal of living lives that are much mindful of the earth and its resources. How does that philosophy measure up to the lines at the stores this weekend, the surge of people to buy and consume, spending and grasping for meaning in having more as they push and trample others to get to the goods first.
Every day I collect a pile in my sink of coffee grounds, and banana peels and lettuce leaves. There is a large plastic bucket that holds this refuse. Every so often Andrea shovels it out into the garden, and mixes it with the earth, making the ground more fertile, replenishing its nutrients with the rotted refuse of our breakfast, lunch and dinners. It is reminiscent of the Native Americans teaching the Pilgrims how to use the remains of the fish they consumed for Thanksgiving as fertilizer for the corn that helped them survive the winter. Turn it over and under said the man at the dump. Turn it over and under and the earth replenishes itself. Most of us grew up in a disposable culture. We learned that things needed to be used for a while and then thrown way. It helped the economy to be wasteful. I learned a relatively smelly introduction to reusing things, first at my childhood dump, and then as a young adult who wanted to use cloth diapers, as opposed to disposable ones. With my first son many years ago, and later with my younger boys I used cloth diapers, provided by a diaper service. But it became clear with our third son, that few people were availing themselves of cloth diapers anymore. Diaper services could not survive. It was rare to find anyone who used cloth diapers. And people would chide us, “are you still using those cloth diapers?” We often forget the consequences of how much of landfills those diapers fill up, and the potential hazardous waste from the bacteria in them. Mostly we are hooked on convenience. What we can discard, and then not think about or see or touch is the easy solution.
It is true that most of want to get rid of waste as quickly as possible. It is unclean and we are embarrassed by our own droppings. As Philip Slater wrote many years ago, “our ideas are based on a pattern of thought that unwanted matter, unwanted difficulties, unwanted anything will disappear if they are removed from our immediate field of vision.” Someone may not connect the trash that is thrown from their window with the trash in the streets. This is the same philosophy behind the city mayors who want to remove the homeless and the hungry from the streets, and truck them off where we don’t have to look at them. If we don’t see them, they don’t exist. It is also harder for us to say no to someone who asks for spare change by looking them in the eyes, and so we tend to look away. But if we see the homeless, if we touch the diaper, then our refuse becomes a little more real. This reminds me of the experience in York , England, where you go underground to tour the ancient Viking settlement that has been excavated by archeologists. They have also recreated all the smells of what it would have been like to live in his village. It is not a pleasant experience for the nose.
As I experienced the Viking village my senses learned that garbage and waste were once an immediate reality for most of humanity, but modern plumbing, disposal, and dumps have removed it from sight. And now we don’t even go to the dump anymore. They are filled and capped, and we truck it away. All of this makes us want to use more renewal resources, and I suspect this feeling among most people in this congregation is going to lead us to pursue becoming part of the Green Sanctuary movement. This has wide ranging implications. It is more than recycling our glass and cans, it means learning to walk more, use different kinds of lighting or fuels in our homes, drive different kinds of cars, replacing our windows, using solar panels, having compost under the sink and in the yard. It is changing our individual lifestyles, but here at church it means educational programs and worship that is more earth centered. It means new windows, and a more efficient heating system, solar panels or water recycling. It means seeing if our investments are green friendly.
It mostly means a different, basic understanding of life. In the reading from The Unexpected Universe, Loren Eiseley has a meaningful encounter when the train he is riding on stalls near a large dump. He reflects on the words of the dump philosopher, “We get it all. Just give it time to travel, we get it all.” The dump philosopher has a kinship with the archeologist. The archeologist is awake to memories of the dead cultures sleeping around us, to our destiny, and to the nature of the universe. Like the dump philosopher the archeologist is the last grubber among things; civilizations are put to bed, judgments are passed. While it could be the marvelous riches of an ancient Egyptian tomb, or a colonial dump site that contains a mangled fish bone, we find shadowy references to the life that was lived, the materials that were precious and perishable, now gone. The refuse tells us how the people lived. We could picture the same from the trash in our own households – the broken doll that gave so much joy, the wilted flowers from a lovely anniversary party, the records we danced the night away to; all carried away, all the stuff that gave meaning to our lives, the memories we have left of the life we lived – the old skis and broken tennis rackets, the crutches from the broken bones, the animal cage now empty. Often the archeologists will say that an ancient dump site will tell you more about a culture than anything else. It gives a complete sense of what they ate, what they used, and how they lived.
Here is the very reality of life itself. We who see beauty in mountains and seas and forests rarely see it in that which is discarded from life. The dump was always depicted as the ugliest, smelliest place in town, and the garbage collector was on the lowest rung of the social ladder. While I don’t pick the dump anymore, and I have my moments of looking for good trash on the sidewalk, I also spend some time, especially in the summer, combing the beach to find refuse. For the past few years we have owned a cottage in the harbor in Rockland, Maine. Being in the harbor means that we seem to get more of the remains of boaters and lobsterman, and this refuse actually makes the beach more interesting for scavengers. We spot useless pieces of Styrofoam from some destroyed cooler, paddles and docks and even whole boars have floated in on the ocean current, and yards and yards of rope. So much rope has washed ashore we have yet to purchase any to tie up boats or provide a railing for our collapsing stairs to the beach. In with the odd assorted items of rusted steel and abandoned Coca-cola bottles, we find endless pieces of seas glass. Often in beautiful or unusual colors it shines up from the rock strewn beach. “Here’s one,” we cry out when we have discovered another piece. It is beach glass from a new beer bottle or an old elixir. It is the left overs and discards. It is the bottle that was thrown overboard, or washed ashore on some wave that licked it from the boats seat. The hard, pointed rocks make it impossible for a bottle to survive this journey in tact. And so we have pieces of culture, of someone’s work or pleasure from one day in time. Worn by the surf, we can only speculate who and why and when. It is life that has come from the ocean, just as life itself rose from the ocean. Here on dry land it has no use anymore. It may be pretty, or it may give pleasure for a moment in our sight, or perhaps it will find a use in art. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. And so we hold and see beauty in the refuse, the discard from the sea.. Now we ask you, if you wish, to take your piece of sea glass, and hold it in your hand. Close your eyes if you wish:

This glass is part of life’s remains and hope. It was useful to someone once. It held a beverage that quenched their thirst. It was a medicine that took away the pain in their head. It was shaped by hand once- blown into being. It was mass produced later on. It floated upon the water -tossed and dashed – it crashed and broke apart sending all its pieces dipping and diving in a thousand different directions. There were the cold green waters of the deep pouring over its surface. The rocks beneath molded and shaped so long ago – some now worn and turned to sand, then sand to glass. There are bits of life all around – sea creatures of many stripes and colors, shells and seaweed coating and colliding with the glass. It was part of life once, up from the sea. It it a memory of another life, another day, and it is a memory now of being found, and then being touched again, with warmth and care. With eyes that hold beauty and shape new life. It can be of use again in yet another form.

I believe we might have a broader definition of beauty than the one that glorifies in unsullied nature, especially when the discards of life have often resurfaced and stained the pristine view. We search the beach for them. They have their own beauty. Their own life’s memory. Why do we often fail to see beauty in the the sweat and blood of the world? Why not in the refuse and remains? We have also often depicted death as an evil and ugly part of life, something we don’t want to look at, and so we hide death away like refuse. What if we saw death as a beautiful culmination of life? The dump philosophers and pickers remind us that all life eventually comes to the point of being discarded. This glass is broken and discarded, but at the same time, what some would not look at or use, has immense meaning and value for others. It has beauty and history and once held some greater meaning. The poet Yeats wrote,
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of the street
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladders gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”

Yeats implores us to ask the question, Is anything really worthless? If we want to embrace an interdependent web of life, then we need to be linked to plastic containers. If we believe we must be in relationships with all life forms, then we need to respect the fish bone. If we are going to build our worship around mountains and trees and seas, we also need to remember the factories and pavement and dumps. If we are going to find meaning in cycles and seasons, then we would go to the depth of meaning in decay and death. We cannot selectively find meaning in what is nice and clean, while not seeing what is real and used. We do not make things clean by not talking or looking or using something that is attached to the sweat and blood of the world. The use it up and throw it away philosophy does not do justice to life – what we do not look at or talk about will not disappear, but will resurface to haunt us. Nor does it do justice to ourselves, for our meaning is found in the discarded we use up, as we journey toward the end of our lives.
Picking the dump means we find the beautiful or the useful in the discards of life. In Nehemiah 4, the Jews are ridiculed for trying to restore things out of rubbish. But they keep on laboring, and the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt. We think it is a new thing, using rubbish to rebuild, when we see things like playground surfaces made out of old tires. What if more things were like that? In Jerusalem there was talk of too much rubbish, but they were counseled not to be afraid. They had learned that they could build on what others considered trash. In fact, Nehemiah gives implicit value to the trash. What others find as useless, he finds as valuable. The remains of ancient dinosaurs have literally fueled our culture for the past century or more. It has been our blessing and our curse. What other kinds of old life will now bring new life? Picking the dump reminds us that we have lived and eaten and worked and loved and died – from the fish bone to the appliance to the wilted flower. When we embrace the beauty in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, then we learn that we are all dump pickers, finding life in the remains of yesterday’s feast. We find value in the refuse of life. We build new walls on the dump when we recognize it as part of us, and part of all; in recognizing our brokenness, we begin to become whole.

Closing Words – from Adrienne Rich
My heart is moved by all that I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

“Pilgrim Fortitude” by Mark W. Harris – November 25, 2007

“Pilgrim Fortitude” by Mark W. Harris – November 25, 2007

“Pilgrim Fortitude” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – November 25, 2007

Call to Worship – from Hildegard of Bingen

I am the one whose praise
echoes on high.

I adorn all the earth.

I am the breeze
that nurtures all things
I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits.

I am led by the spirit to feed
the purest streams.

I am the rain
coming from the dew
that causes the grasses to laugh
with the joy of life

I call forth tears,
the aroma of holy work.

I am yearning for good.

Reading – from Learning to Fall by Philip Simmons

Sermon – “Pilgrim Fortitude” Mark W. Harris

Senator Larry Craig from Idaho has been publicly denying that he’s gay since 1982. He became the subject of many jokes in September when he denied “any inappropriate conduct” in a men’s room at the Minneapolis airport. And then, he declared “I am not gay and never have been.” His enduring denials and blatant hypocrisy are indeed sad commentary on what we might wish was the personal character of anyone who holds the honorable title of United State Senator. A recent New York Times book review article juxtaposed Craig’s pandering and posturing around the US Capitol with an exhibit at the Smithsonian just down the street. Here behind glass was a display of two picket signs that had been carried by homosexual rights protesters outside the White House in 1965, four years before the famous Stonewall clash. These signs are now national treasures, shown beside the hat that Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theater the night John Wilkes Booth ended his life. Last week when Elizabeth Tappan-deFrees and others read the text elucidating the legality of Same sex marriage, we were all reminded once again of the enormous historic significance of this event. While we can celebrate this in Massachusetts, we also realize the continuing battle in 49 other states, many of whom have passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as an institution between a man and a woman. When will it be that civil marriage is a civil right in all states?

A lying Senator and picket signs remind us how difficult it is to keep on keeping on, as they used to say in the 1960’s; surviving and being true to yourself over decades, centuries, even millennia as you are relegated to the status of heretic, freak, sinner, slave, imbecile. How can anyone live from day to day when others want to keep you out of their neighborhood, out of their church, and out of their lives? These are stories of people shunned and persecuted, locked up in chains and locked up in institutions, manacled and shackled in some way, but always told that what they are is inferior, wrong or misguided, or worse, deserves death. And yet some survived, and some broke those chains. To do so, took what we sometimes call fortitude, or the courage to never give up. It is the fourth of our sometime series on the seven virtues – Justice, Temperance, Prudence and now Fortitude – to be followed by the three theological virtues; Faith, Hope and Love.

On Thanksgiving most of us sat down to a large feast. We also carry in our minds and hearts a mythic story about this celebration that is tied up with our nation’s origins, and how we conceive of ourselves as a people. We have even greater reminders of this here in Watertown when we see the Arbella in the entry way, and realize we are one of the oldest congregations in America, or when we celebrate Thanksgiving and retrieve the ancient silver from the MFA, and see and touch the vessels that are symbolic of the faith of our 17th century ancestors. School children still make floppy paper hats made of brown construction paper, and recite the bravery of a people who were persecuted in their homeland, and fled here to find religious freedom. Other children construct some kind of feathered headdresses to signify the Native American heritage, whom we designate as helpmates to these weary Pilgrims, extending a hand in friendship and teaching them to plant corn. Two cultures coming together in friendship.

There is some truth in that myth, and as Nathaniel Philbrick shows us in his bestseller Mayflower, the Natives and the English learned and absorbed much from each other over the first fifty years of coexistence. But despite the support and protection that had existed, both began to have different visions of what the future was going to be. Young natives saw more and more of their lands being taken over, and the young English settlers began to anticipate a day when poverty and disease would annihilate the natives. Philbrick shows us that the dynamic, diverse cultural interplay that did play a role in Plymouth self-destructed with King Philip’s War, population wise the most devastating war in American history. That Pilgrims and Natives alike had the fortitude to survive the first fifty years, and maintain the peace was founded on their ability to see what kind of obligations they had to each other or how much they needed one another. When they lost sight of this, one culture was virtually destroyed, and the other ended up fighting more Indian wars for nearly another century, before the fight for independence from Britain itself took over.

While most of us have some vague idea of Pilgrims and Natives celebrating the first Thanksgiving feast, we probably also reflect on what we are each thankful for. It may be at a ministerial prompting in church, or simply a family sharing as we go around the table at dinnertime. This was true for the gathering I attended. What was interesting is that the youngest person there, a vibrant first grader, and the oldest person there, an almost 80 year old man who can barely speak due to a stroke, both echoed the same sentiment. The six year old saying, “I am happy to be alive,” and the older man, “I am glad just to be here.” Most of us usually think of family and friends, food and loved ones to be thankful for, and probably continue our mythic idea of the first Thanksgiving with the idea that the Pilgrims were thankful for the bounty they enjoyed. Perhaps there is some truth there, but it seems to me after they survived that first year where half of them died due to sickness, and the others made some misguided initial contacts with the Natives, that they were lucky to be here at all. So perhaps they gave thanks not for what they had, but that they had survived at all.

About a week ago Elijah Tappan-deFrees visited me in my office to interview me for a school project on the Puritans, although I probably gave him more detail than he ever imagined or wanted. He let me borrow a book on the first Thanksgiving, which explained to me that there were many feasts, not one, that Massasoit celebrated with his Wampanaog followers, when they happened to visit the Pilgrims who were preparing a traditional harvest celebration. The book also reminded me that the Wampanaogs give thanks every day, and in all things. It is a way of being. They give thanks for the ancestors. They give thanks for life. They look forward to the future. These are the touchstones of life – past, present and future. We all hope to learn truths from the past, so that we might live more nobly right now, guided by a vision of what life might be. In a personal context we all hope the children will grow up happy and healthy, and be given opportunities to live rich, full lives, and have children of their own, and grow old with dignity and grace. We envision a natural order of things graced by prosperity and happiness. Then we confront times when that natural order is broken. On Thanksgiving morning we received a call that a woman Andrea and I both know well had suffered the loss of her 18 year old son in a car accident in Lexington. Sad. Tragic. Unfair. Whatever his life was going to bring will never unfold – college, marriage, children, career, who knows? All lost.

This was an ultimate kind of tragedy, the loss of a life in the blossom of youth. In the book Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick describes how the Pilgrims discovered they were traveling in time as they walked around southern New England. All along the walking paths the Natives had made circular foot deep holes, not traps, but memory holes to remind people of where remarkable events had taken place. It was every person’s responsibility to maintain the holes, and to tell the stories of what had happened there. It was hallowed ground. It also made traveling less boring because there were these significant places. There was a sense of community and meaning literally dug into the ground. I suppose we try to do this today, when we mark the site of terrible accidents. Don’t forget the loss of life that occurred here. We all have reminders of the losses we endure as our lives go forward. We may mark the places in our heart where a parent or partner or child has died, and we, especially at a Thanksgiving table, note the missing place or person, tell their stories, and then give thanks that we still have life, knowing what we can learn from this memory hole. Those friends and family, bounty and good health we have can be snatched away in an instant. Those Pilgrims and those Natives knew that. Disease had struck down almost all the natives, and half the Pilgrims. They knew every day that life is impermanent, giving reason to say give thanks in all things, all days, all times. Give thanks that you are here at all.

I suspect it is hard to give thanks in those times when we feel life is most cruel. If we have lost a child, or gotten the news about a serious illness, we may respond that this cannot be happening, or ask why is it happening to me. Yet these moments certainly remind us most starkly of all that we have to be grateful for, and so we hug or hold more tightly those dear ones with whom we spend our days, or who are left with us to carry on in the days ahead. In his book Learning to Fall, Philip Simmons, who at the time he was writing was suffering from ALS, and has since died, tells us we must have a realization that all things are transient, and that we literally can’t keep a house, can’t keep anything, and not just because we grow old and lose the physical ability to care for it, but because we will die, and cannot hold on to material things. And then he goes on to say that the only way we can keep a house is not by trying to make it immortal, because it will pass away. The immortality must be found in the work we hallow with the days of our lives. And so we scrape and sand, plaster and paint and beautify and preserve, or hold together as long as we can with what strength and skill we have because it is a joy to be able to do what we can simply because we are alive. Sometimes in the summertime in Maine, I am sore when I get up in the morning, not from age and infirmity but because I have hauled logs, trimmed trees, painted windows or doors, and my body is aware of its labors. My soreness tells me I am alive. And it is good.

Simmons would have us believe that the true keeping of our unfinished houses must occur in the present. I am glad I am alive right now. I am glad to be here with you. I must hallow the work I do right now. But I think that point of view can be misinterpreted. While the present is really all that we have, and we must be fully aware of our gratitude in this moment, I think we must also be guided by the heaven that lies elsewhere. Sure we can be fooled by always waiting for the house to be finished, or waiting to be happy, and a fantasy can consume us. We may be unable to live in the present if we are always thinking of what is to come. I think we must distinguish between fantasy that will never be realized, and how we must still be guided by a vision of how life could be.

For several years on a frequent basis, Andrea and I and the boys have driven to Waltham to swim at the Fernald Center. While our children’s needs meant that we could use their facilities, I became struck by the battle still brewing to close down this facility which houses many severely disabled people, so that the land might be sold and developed. Many of you know that the people who live there have spent their entire lives within this center, and their families hope that they can end their days under the Fernald roofs. As a historian I have more than a passing interest in the Fernald, as it was founded by Samuel Gridley Howe, active Unitarian, and also the first director of what is now the Perkins School for the Blind. The Fernald was America’s first institution for the so-called feebleminded. Howe’s theories of education were and are admirable. He believed that all children should be educated to lead productive and independent lives. He expected everyone would graduate to a life beyond the institution. This changed with the advent of a misguided application of scientific theory called eugenics. Liberals and others began to fear that many social problems were caused by a wildly breeding underclass of people. Its advocates believed that selective breeding would stem the tide of idiocy, which would destroy America. By the early 20th century those who ran the Fernald came to believe that the students there could never be trained to live on their own, and should never be allowed to leave state custody.

Those are the parameters of a sad and depressing book called The State Boys Rebellion, which I am in the process of reading. It is sad and depressing because it tells the story of tens of thousands of children who were locked away and separated from their families because they were deemed deficient, and were said to likely become criminals in society, and if they bred they would degrade the gene pool. There are tales of abuse and neglect, fear and terror, and for many of these relatively normal children who nobody wanted, there was the horrible specter of never being free again. But that very fear of growing old and dying within the Fernald’s walls motivated Fred Boyce and others to never give up. We may think of rebels in Hungary in 1956. We may think of the lone Chinese student who stood before the tank in Tianamen Square. We may think of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Fred Boyce never believed he should be imprisoned at the Fernald. He never believed he was the useless “N” word that others called him, even when he was not sure what it meant. He never believed that he had no intelligence, or that nobody would ever love him.

Fred Boyce’s story reminds me of a 2nd century Christian bishop and martyr named Polycarp. He was confronted with a Roman judge who ordered him to bow before Caesar, and renounce his religious beliefs. Polycarp refused to do so. The judge not really wanting to throw the old saint to the lions, said, “Don’t you know that I have the power to kill you?” Polycarp stared him down and said, “Don’t you realize I have the power to let you?” What he meant was that rather than giving in to the threat and allowing the judge to force him to recant, he had the power to face the beasts while still upholding the principles that gave meaning to his life. He had the power to hold firm to those principles which gave him a higher truth to live by, and the judge could not take that away. He didn’t have to shrink back in fear, he could stand up with courage. His larger vision gave him the fortitude to withstand any threats.

How do you find the fortitude to carry on when your life has been destroyed? This was the enormous task before the State Boys like Fred Boyce. In Fred’s case that hope began to surface by seeing and hearing about the civil rights movement on TV and radio. He came to know why that “N” word had been applied to him. And so he and his friends protested their mistreatment, cried for freedom, ran away, and then ultimately seized a prison ward. They eventually won their freedom, and with minimal training were released into the world. Fred went on the carnival circuit, as his lifelong incarceration meant he could never be confined to one place again. When he worked in Roxbury at one time he connected his own experience with those of his black customers. He wrote, “There was nothing wrong with these guys. They were strong grown men who worked hard but had nothing. They were just black. That was the whole thing.”

What gives us the fortitude to keep going? A vision. Sure we must give thanks that we have our life, but something must continue to inspire us to go on. Fred Boyce and others believed that they deserved to be free. They were inspired by others who were enchained in their fight for freedom. Juxtapose those who stand up for their freedom, for what is right, time and time again over decades, over lifetimes and will not sacrifice their integrity with those who will say anything to win your vote, to please you. At the Fernald School, a handful of boys fought against terrible oppression, and lived to tell the tale. They stood up. They told the truth. They carried on. They survived. Is it freedom? Is it friendship? Is it the search for truth? Is it love? Is it to give the world a more just or peaceful path to follow? Is it one life lived with integrity? We talk about our Pilgrim ancestors making some poor choices 50 years after settlement, and chaos ensured, especially for the Native culture, which was destroyed. But for the Pilgrims, too, who suffered through war after war. There was a way of life that surfaced in these first fifty years. That to really survive in the long run, we must respect our diversity, we must listen to one another, we must realize we are all in this together. This year we are all thankful we survived, but we will do so a lot longer if we remember how much we need everybody, so that when tragedy strikes, we are there for one another, when someone is enchained in some way, we are there for one another. In all things, we are there for another.

Closing Words from Carl Sandburg , “The People, Yes”

“And the king wanted an inscription
good for a thousand years and after
that to the end of the world?”
“Yes, precisely so.”
“Something so true and awful that no
matter what happened it would stand?”
“Yes, exactly that.”
Something no matter who spit on it or
laughed at it there it would stand
and nothing would change it?”
“Yes, that was what the king ordered
his wise men to write.”
“And what did they write?”

“Judging and Genocide” by Mark W. Harris – October 28, 2007

“Judging and Genocide” by Mark W. Harris – October 28, 2007

“Judging and Genocide” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – October 28, 2007

Opening Words- Israel Zangwill

Come into the circle of love and justice,
Come into the community of pity,
Of holiness and health —
Come, and ye shall know peace and joy,
Let what ye desire of the universe penetrate you,
Let lovingkindness and mercy pass through you,
And truth be the law of your mouth.


D. H. Lawrence – “There is my creed”

This is what I believe:

That I Am I,
That my soul is a dark forest.
That my known self will never be more than a little
clearing in the forest.
That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into
the clearing of my known self, and then go back.
That I must have the courage to let them come and go.
That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but
that I will try always to recognize and submit to the
gods in me and the gods in other men and women.
There is my creed.

Matthew 7 : 1-5, 7-8

‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. . .  ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Everyone judges. Come on. You know it’s true. We do it all the time. If we see unruly children in a restaurant, we may judge the parent as incompetent or irresponsible. With their eyes, their sighs or even their words our fellow diners may implore us, “Can’t you keep them under control?” And so we may quickly try to finish up our meal so that we can exit, or one parent takes the children outside, or we may even defiantly say to ourselves, “If they don’t like the way my kids behave, tough luck.” But there may also be instances when we feel judged by another, and it is entirely appropriate. As a parent I was shirking my duty. Bad behavior can be more than just a quiet meal interrupted. Children running through a parish hall, for instance, can be dangerous to the elderly and others. When a fellow driver runs red lights, or weaves in and out of traffic, we judge them as a danger to public safety.

The point is we can’t help but judge others. They are not doing their job. They are not paying attention. And we say, shape up. We also have views about what we think is appropriate behavior, dress, lifestyle choices, the right amount of exercise to get or eating habits right down to the brand of ketchup we think is superior. If we see Hunt’s instead of Heinz, we may grimace and say, Yeech, my brand is better. This is a regular topic of discussion with my boys. They all love video games, but they have different preferences for what they like. Sometimes they cannot seem to avoid saying to one another – “you are stupid for liking that game,” or “that is a lousy game, I can’t believe you like it.” When one of them feels judged by the other, they go on the attack As parents we try to say they need to realize that everyone has preferences, and it is ok, if you like something that I do not, and you are not stupid or ignorant for liking it.

This came up in a more serious way not long ago with two Boston firefighters who were killed in the line of duty. We all have tremendous respect for firefighters, as evidenced right now by those individuals who are endangering their lives to save countless homes and land in California. It is a job with a tremendous amount of risk involved, and that was the case with the two firefighters who rushed into a restaurant and were engulfed by an exploding backdraft. We admired their bravery and dedication to duty so that we the public might feel safe. After the massive outpouring of grief in support of the families and affirmation of the firefighters at their respective funerals, some shocking news surfaced. Autopsies showed that one of the firefighters was legally drunk, and the other had cocaine in his system. This besmirched the brave epitaphs with the revelation that firefighters may behave in ways that can endanger their own lives, and the lives of the public at large.

This raises many questions. If he was sober, would he have gone into the building? What if he had to rescue someone? What kind of firehouse environment permitted him to work in this condition? Do we want a drunk firefighter driving erratically down the street in a swaying, massive red truck, or making some kind of erroneous decision about your health and safety because he/she couldn’t think straight? They might be both a danger to themselves and us, and our property. We later learned that Boston is the only firefighting unit in a major city that does not require drug testing. The immediate reaction to this news was most enlightening. The Union seemed to imply this was a private matter, and they immediately announced they wanted to “protect the families of our fallen brothers.” Even the next day, when I was walking through Harvard Square, a newspaper dealer was hawking his headlines by shouting “these men risk their lives by going into burning buildings. You’d have a drink, too. I think he was missing the point. This wasn’t a lifestyle choice to drink socially because of a stressful job. The firefighters need to be judged for irresponsible actions that could endanger themselves and the public.

Up until recent months, the town of Watertown participated in an apparently innocuous program to promote equality and diversity, and more seriously to speak up and act if there are public instances of hate being spoken about a particular person or group in a community. This program, called No Place for Hate, is sponsored by the Anti-Defammation league, which for many years has held community events, workshops and printed materials to help communities battle against prejudice and discrimination, especially anti-semitism. A few of our First Parish members were involved, including me as their treasurer, and as the chief organizer of Watertown’s annual Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast. The Town Council were official supporters of this No Place for Hate program, and a police officer was the co-chair. This was clearly a non-controversial, mom and apple pie way to try to embrace a community vision of how we can all get along and understand and accept one another despite our differences. A number of interesting and informative programs have been sponsored over the years, including sessions on hate crimes and immigration issues. Yet this summer we learned there was a seamy underside to the “peace, love and understanding.” theme.

This seamy underside has to do with the fact that 1.5 million Armenians were intentionally killed by the Turkish government between 1915 and 1923. This intentional killing of a national or ethnic group constitutes what has become recognized as a genocide, the same term that is currently being applied to the human destruction in Darfur in the Sudan. It turned out that the Anti-Defamation League had failed to recognize the slaughter of the Armenians as a genocide, and seemed to view the carnage in Turkey as the consequence of tragic wartime conditions, much as the Turkish government has. In short, a regrettable consequence of war, but not intentional killings. Because the Turkish government is Israel’s only friend in the Middle East, the ADL refused to say that the Turks had intentionally perpetrated these acts. The ADL chose political expediency over integrity, which makes it difficult for them to legitimately define themselves as a group which decries all forms of hatred when they refused to affirm and name the truthfulness of a terrible historic event that was the very epitome of hatred.

The uncovering of this failure of the ADL to live up to the integrity of their own mission led the No Place for Hate Committee, led by our own Will Twombly, to work with the Town Council to remove Watertown from this official program. A new group is forming around these issues, and if any of you are interested in participating, I encourage you to speak to me, or Will or Sue Kuder. This local turmoil has led to some interesting national and international repercussions. The ADL has reconsidered its positions, and a US House of Representatives Committee has endorsed a measure labeling these events a genocide. Affirming the truthfulness of this genocide, which is a non binding resolution without the force of law, has unnerved President Bush, and resulted in the Turks calling their US ambassador home and the government doing some saber rattling in northern Iraq against the Kurds. For years the Turks have tried to silence the discussion around this genocide, and like any attempt to censor, it has only led to more attention being focused on Turkey, and in a way the present government makes itself more of a party to events that it was not responsible for in the first place. The denial and cover-up make it worse.

I believe this Armenian genocide discussion is a helpful reminder to each of us of how and when we judge, and why it is crucial that we reflect on how we judge at certain junctures in life. The scripture passage from Matthew is instructive here because I believe a typical liberal interpretation of this would be that we should never judge others. It tell us, “Judge not, so you will not be judged.” In keeping with liberal thought on tolerating other perspectives or understanding others, we are likely to affirm that we should not judge whether someone or something is right or not. We tend to fall on the personal decision side of ethical decision making. We affirm people following their own bliss. But there can be harmful effects to this approach. This came up at a recent study group meeting of mine. One of my colleagues had a quandary that he could not address. One partner in a marriage was having an affair. Our liberal inclination is to not judge that person because our faith tends to focus on the individual and on individual needs. We affirm each person and minister separately to the sad and angry partner who was betrayed; to the philandering spouse who is looking for something more in life; to the person seeking power by being chosen over someone else. So that failure to judge does not acknowledge the immoral nature of the act, which is what the more evangelical church would do, but moreover it fails to acknowledge how someone is getting hurt. The person is destroying a relationship. Shouldn’t a minister speak to him about the destructive nature of his acts?

Most of us are sensitive to being judged, or feel ashamed. And so if we have the courage to share something we feel badly about, it is not helpful to be told how awful this act was. We already know that. We seek forgiveness or understanding. We forget sometimes how easy it is to make someone feel bad with our judging. I was speaking to someone this week about a group she used to be in, which involved sharing some very painful experiences. A common first reaction after a person had told the group of some painful trauma was, “I could never survive that” or “how could you stand it?” Perhaps meant as an attempt to admire strength, it also comes across as judgment. You were stupid to put up with that. You endured too long. We want to share without fear of being judged critically, in the hope that we can make amends and find a new way to live. So the context of the judging is crucial. Is it to affirm me and my beliefs, or is to to affirm the other and help them feel supported? Is it giving or is it selfish?

People don’t want to be judged, and yet we must call each other to be our best selves. So I think the more helpful way to understand Jesus’s comment on judging is that we do judge, but when we do so it must be with honest and helpful intent rather than in a destructive, attacking or controlling kind of manner which always implies that I am right. Could it be that sometimes we need to judge or be judged? For example, I feel judged every time I visit my doctor. I am going to step on his scale, and then tell him how little exercise I get when I go for my annual physical exam, which of course I have delayed scheduling because I am going to be judged. We are reluctant these days to be critical of those are overweight or out of shape, despite the obesity epidemic among children. But we could also say my doctor is judging me because he has my good health in mind, which he has sworn an oath to uphold. If I still smoked cigarettes, he would judge my decision about that, too. So his intent in judging me is to serve a greater good, my own health. The idea is not to insult someone or make them feel bad about themselves, which is not what you would expect from a doctor. He is also not trying to imply that I am a bad person, but that it is my actions that need changing. As with children, we make the distinction between the behavior and the boy. My doctor is trying to help me feel better, and live better, and I need to make the decisions in my own life to help me do that.

Liberals may live by the mistaken presumption that if we do not judge we are really being very accepting of others, but our acceptance may indeed be an unwillingness to engage with the other person or issue. It may be a silent avoidance of confronting the real problem. By this I do not mean the stereotype nosy, controlling in law that tells you or shows you what she perceives is the right and only way to do your dishes or fold your laundry or how everything you do seems wrong . That is a judging that feels consistent with my boys insulting each other for liking a video game that one of the others dislikes. There is another helpful kind of judging that we need. This says that a child’s behavior does needs correcting sometimes. Or that a person needs to be judged when they are hurting someone else in our wider community by violating appropriate boundaries. If we are unfair in our judgments it will be reflected by the log in our own eyes. Judging is not about my being right and you being wrong, but it can be something that helps us see those times where we are hurting ourselves or another. And then our friend, our partner or even our doctor, is being helpful, even loving to judge what we are doing. So the idea is to judge fairly, and not in any selfish way.

The problem is that we sometimes live with the notion that we are better people if we do not judge at all. I think we teach our children to just be nice and accepting toward others, and think of everybody as good and worthy. Unfortunately being nice has its limits, especially when someone perpetrates an act of selfish judgment on another. One person may say to another, “what you like is horrible, and it reflects how ignorant you are, too.” The judgment often feels as if it is about the person, as well as about the action. Here is where D.H. Lawrence’s creed has some religious value for us. He says the soul is a dark forest. Our tendency as people is to protect ourselves. We think it would be better if we all got along, but achieving that goal is easier said than done. The dark forest is how complicated human nature is. With the No Place for Hate situation we have a seemingly faultless sponsoring group which is actually protecting its own interests, and compromising its own integrity for political purposes. Here protecting the alliance was more important than recognizing the genocide. They needed to be called to task for not owning up to the truth. Judging them made them face the truth.

Liberals tend to have this belief that if we allowed all perspectives equal time everyone would feel welcome and accepted, right? There is no judgment here. I just finished teaching a crucial session in my class on the history of Unitarian Universalism. Liberals in the early 19th century wanted to avoid conflict and have one big happy Christian fellowship where your faith was measured by what you did, and not by what you believed. But giving room to everybody, as nice and nonjudgmental as it sounds, means that those who believe in something strongly are not permitted to do so because we don’t really want that kind of dogmatic faith in an inclusive setting. Inclusiveness is actually an ideology. I believe we should be courageous enough to admit that, and in this context we should also be courageous enough to say that we are judging those who have strong beliefs. We may judge them as wrong, but it is also true that that judging may be appropriate, especially if they are slinging homophobic or racist words. In other words, in the context of the community, we take a stand based on our values.

What is crucial is whether the judging we do is calling others to their better selves, or is it prejudicial or vindictive? In our avowed nonjudgmental way, we often voice hyper critical judging. Historically, liberals believed they knew what was right for the ignorant masses. We saw ourselves as the better educated, more cultured people, and judged others as incapable of doing what was right for the communities where they lived. But perhaps it is just our own rational fear of deep religious experience, or faith that is simply present, persistent. If you are a person who has had an experience of visionary dreams, or had inexplicable religious experiences happen to you then you may feel judged within a Unitarian Universalist context because that is not an acceptable way to be religiously in our paradigm of understanding truth. I think of my father telling me of the amazing experience he had going into his pea patch early in the morning as the dew was glistening on the leaves, and the pods were bursting with green circular morsels of delight, and the sun was rising over the tree tops, and the birds were sounding their first songs, and he said he heard the voice of God. Students in the class I teach say that people they know, are fearful of sharing this kind of experience in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. They will be judged they say, as crazy.

Perhaps these are D.H. Lawrence’s strange gods that come forth from the forest that we need to be less judgmental of. We remember that under the peace, love and understanding of No Place for Hate or liberal religion there is a dark side of our apparent nonjudgmental ideology. There are truths we don’t talk about. We are always judging things – my issue is paramount, your experience is wrong. We are not exempt from judging the speck in the other’s eye, while the log sits in our eye. This is when D. H. Lawrence’s creed comes full circle We recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women. We all judge all the time. I think it is part of our very nature that we cannot deny. Those gods of judgment in us are calling us to remember how often we think we are right, and that is a judging that makes the log in our eye grow. But when our judging calls others to see and listen to the gods in each other – Armenian and Turk, Jew and Palestinian, liberal and conservative, reason and experience, then we can truly be reconciled, to the truth, to our better, more healthy, more loving selves; then it is a holy kind of just judging.

Closing words – by Frederick Gillis
May the love that overcomes all differences,
  that heals all wounds,
  that puts to flight all fears,
  that reconciles all who are separated,
Be in us and among us
  now and always. Amen.

“Walk This Way” by Andrea Greenwood – September 23, 2007

“Walk This Way” by Andrea Greenwood – September 23, 2007

“Walk This Way” by Andrea Greenwood – September 23, 2007

Story: Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by Don Johnson

One summer day, Henry and his friend decided to go to Fitchburg to see the country. “Ill walk” said Henry. It is the fastest way to travel.
I’ll work, said Henry’s friend, until I have the money to buy a ticket to ride the train to Fitchburg. We’ll see who gets there first!

His friend waved. Enjoy your walk!
Henry walked down the road to Fitchburg. Enjoy your work, he called back.
Henry’s friend filled the woodbox in Mrs. Alcott’s kitchen. 10 cents
Henry hopped from rock to rock on the Sudbury river.
His friend swept out the post office. 5 cents
Henry carved a walking stick. 25 miles to Fitchburg
Henry’d friend pulled all the weeds in Mr Hawthorne’s garden. 15 cents
Henry put ferns and flowers in a book and pressed them
His friend painted the fence in front of the court house. 10 cents
Henry walked on stne walls
Henry’s friend moved the bookcases in Mr Emerson’s study. 15 cents
Henry climbed a tree. 18 miles to Fitchb urg
His friend carried water to cows grazing in the grass in town. 5 cents
Henry made a raft and paddled up the Nashua River
Henry’s friend cleaned out Mrs Thoreau’s chicken house. 10 cents
Henry crossed a swamp and found a birds nest in the grass. 12 miles to Fitchburg
His friend carried flour from the mill to the village baker. 20 cents
Henry found a honey tree
Henry’s friend ran to the train station to buy his ticket to Fitchburg. 90 cents
Henry jumped into a pond. 7 miles to Fitchburg
His friend sat on the train in a tangle of people
Henry ate his way through a blackberry patch
Henry’s friend got off the train at Fitchburg station just as the sun was setting
Henry took a shortcut. 1 mile to Fitchburg
His friend was sitting in the moonlight when Henry arrived. The train was faster, he said.
Henry took a small pail from his pack. I know, he smiled. I stopped for blackberries.

Reading from Into the Silent Land, Paul Broks

… I’m on the train. I have a beer in one hand, and in the other, the paperback I have just bought, It’s about cosmology and I am trying to get some imaginative purchase on the immensity of it all. It’s the kind of thing I sometimes read as way of winding down. The grandiloquent prose (the velvet mantle of the night… cosmic symphony of the night…) and the big, round numbers (four hundred billion galaxies) have a soothing effect.

Cosmology and neuropsychology have absurdity in common. The raw facts are strange beyond imagination.

It sets me thinking about how the physical forces that twist the galaxies and roll the train along the track connect with the social and psychological forces that animate the passengers. The recalcitrant child and his weary mother, the old couple sitting in silence, the woman opposite who catches my eye, displays a micromomentory flicker of an eyebrow and smiles as the young man with an obscene message printed on his t-shirt takes the seat beside her. Fleetingly, she and I were complicit. I entered her mind and she entered mine. We can plot the motions of the planets, but how do you measure the force of a glance, or the weight of a smile?

Thinking these thoughts and looking at the people around me I entertain my self by seeing them for what, at one level of description, they certainy are: complex biological machines. Physical objects. I take a little thought journey behind their eyes, and all I see is darkness; then, looking to the window, against the dark, I see myself looking back at me, lost in a confusion of first and third person. The image in the window resembles a machine like the others on the train, but with an involuntary flip from third person to first, I’m back on this side of the reflection.


     —From The Spirited Walker , Carolyn Scott Kortge
  Early in my enthusiasm for walking, I strode to workouts with the eagerness of an infatuated suitor. I couldn’t wait to explore every aspect of this new relationship that made me feel so alive. I bought a black plastic sports watch to time my walks. Next came a portable tape player and a recording of up-tempo jazz to lift my mood on foot-dragging days. Before long, I’d found a group of walkers who worked out weekly with a coach. With a newcomer’s passion for adventure, I entered track meets for senior athletes and discovered a physical outlet for my love of challenge. Along the way I discovered that physical pursuits succeed or fail on the fitness of mental skills.

On a hot August weekend, (..I) paced nervously at the starting line of a 10K race and fretted about the heat. …. But I had a strategy in mind.

Among the walkers gathered for the event, I’d spotted a woman I recognized. Two days before, this woman had passed me in a shorter walk, moving easily ahead when I began to tire in the final minutes. … My goal was to let her guide me toward a better racing style. .. She was ten years my senior, a national champion in her age division. My footsteps fell into rhythm with hers. Our arms swung like pendulums in synch, creating a momentum that carried me. …Then slowly, the rhythm shifted. My feet lost the beat. My arms fumbled with the pattern. She began to pull ahead. In a flash, despair filled my head: I can’t keep up. It’s too hot. What am I doing here? A mental battle erupted.

For the next mile, I dodged the attacks of an internal ambush. I felt defeated — unable to meet my own goal. What’s the use? my mind chided. Disappointment blinded me and I stopped in the middle of the street. .. Why continue? For me, the race was over. My ego raged at humiliation… Stubbornly, I leaned into a head wind of self-criticism and regained my footing on the route.

Later, I approached the woman who’d walked away from me. “How did you do that?” I asked? I wanted to know how she stayed so steady. I wanted to know how she avoided the complaints and resistance that buffet me when I begin to tire. What does she do at that two-thirds point where I always want to stop? What magic keeps her moving?

“Oh,” she laughed. “There’s no magic. I just start singing ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ to myself.” I stared in stunned amazement. I couldn’t believe it. While I fought a frantic battle with resistance, she stuck a feather in her hat and rode away on the rhythms of a song. Abracadabra. Something flipped in my head. No magic. No mystery. No athletic wizardry. Her secret was nothing more than distraction–


I expected to grow up to be a mail carrier. For someone who liked to walk, but can’t really imagine doing anything just because I like it, it seemed the perfect job. Accomplishment, exercise, pleasure, steady pay…. and something I seemed to have a knack for. I still remember, with childish pride, my grandmother complimenting me on my speed and endurance as a four year old– she had left her car to be repaired, and I walked the several mile trip with her to go retrieve it, and did not slow her down. I enjoy being able to get someplace without relying on anything but my feet. It’s part challenge, and maybe part scale: I can see how big my universe can get, what the boundaries are, without opening myself up to overwhelming choice. Walking gives a perimeter for a life that I can actually be in; be present in.

There is something about walking, too, that is about connection. The summer I was twelve, I got up each day and set off to see how far I could walk on the beach. I wanted to get to the mouth of a river one town over without using any roads; but I also wanted to see how far I could get in a day. Of course, the changing tide made each attempt a different challenge, but what really happened that summer was that I got to know that shore intimately. I knew the shape of the rocks and where it was slick; I knew the hidden beaches and tide pools; where there were thorn bushes and abandoned logging roads. It was not just observation; a detached inventory of my surroundings. It was about inhabiting that space, and also being inhabited by it. I noticed every minute change — what was lost to erosion, what the tide brought in, what was brought to life in different weather. Inhabiting a landscape like that helps us develop a sense of home. Children are often like this in church buildings, I have found. They know every oddity and detail; every hidden corner and unused relic. Physical knowledge can give us the area within the circumference, too — a center to live out of that is truly whole.

There was, for me, in walking both a boundedness and a sense of freedom that derived from the very concrete knowledge of my world. There were no abstractions; just sensory information to be absorbed by the “complex biological machine” that was me. This did not happen in isolation. My rule was to set out using only the shore, but to return on the road, so I continually met the same people who were either driving or out working. They would inquire about my progress, or share their stories. This is the root of the inner life; the interior corresponding to an external world that may be evocative, but is not abstract. Rory Stewart’s travelogue about walking across Afghanistan, The Places Between, alludes to this indirectly. Stewart is something of a prodigy who moved rapidly through the British school system and then through the foreign services, and then quit in order to walk around the world. He writes: “I felt quite detached from the landscape. I wondered how I might connect my Afghan walk to my walks in Iran and Pakistan….

“I thought about evolutionary historians who argued that walking was a central part of what it means to be human. Our two legged motion was what first differentiated us from the apes. It freed our hands for tools and carried us on the long marches out of Africa. As a species, we colonized the world on foot. Most of human history was created through contacts conducted at a walking pace, even when some rode horses. I thought of the pilgrimages to Compostela in Spain; to Mecca; to the source of the Ganges; and of wandering dervishes, sadhus, and friars who approached God on foot. The Buddha meditated by walking and Wordsworth composed sonnets while striding beside the lakes.” Stewart is looking for peace; trying to end the restlessness in his soul; says that he hopes he will become more rooted in one place if he just keeps moving; starts counting his breaths to help him push away thought, and just be. He manages to achieve at most an hour of internal calm a day — not what he was looking for, but, he says, it was a serenity he had not felt before.

Perhaps you are familiar with the African story about some explorer making a long trek, and using coolies to carry the loads. The explorer was quite pleased because on the first day the laborers were compliant, and marched very quickly, and had gone a great distance. Naturally, the explorer recalculated his expectations, and wanted them to go at least that fast and that far on day two. But the second morning these jungle tribesmen refused to move. No matter the threat or the enticement, they just sat and rested. Finally the explorer asked why they would not move, and was informed that they had gone too fast the first day, and that they were now waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.

I like this image because it implies a natural unity while describing a dualism that we actually take for granted: That the mind and the body are separate. This story is far more complicated than it may first appear — we may take it as instructive; a zen lesson of connecting to our own bodies, something those simple, primitive people do instinctively, but that we cannot do without years of disciplined meditation classes; or without trekking across the middle east. But this story reveals our own inability to start from the point of inhabiting the physical machine that does, in fact, define us. Rory Stewart’s story — although not a typical one — is something we probably identify with. It is a version of living that is not quite direct. Everything is filtered for meaning even before it is experienced. The body is not fully inhabited as it walks or stretches or strives to live. Instead we think about walking, we think about exercise, about breathing, about meaning. We wonder when our souls will appear in our bodies, and how we will know; and if our bodies fail us we wonder why, and what we did. I wonder how many of us do this to ourselves, and why. When do we switch from marking physical milestones to mental ones? With children, we obsess over first teeth; over height and weight and even head circumference. If someone measured the bumps on your head as an adult, you would think him terribly anachronistic, racist, and a few other things. But we happily let pediatricians take out the tape measures, and faithfully record the numbers in our baby books. We really believe in the physical nature of life; in the bundle of cells that sleeps and eats and eliminates and grows. For me, I know that it is in part a belief that the exterior act reflects some inner meaning — for example, I was enormously excited that one of my children took his first steps right into Martin Luther King’s house in Atlanta; and it felt hugely significant to me that another first walked on the porch in my great grandmother’s cottage the day after my father’s funeral. Somehow these steps make — in my mind, at least — justice and family connection a more real inheritance. They make visible that which is not.

Maybe that gets at the real issue. We use the physical world as a hunting ground; a place to look for proof that we are good people; to collect evidence that we are not defined by the mistakes we have made or the failed attempts that nag at us. We scan the world to find that we fit in somewhere; to see that it all coheres, and adds up to something. To see how wrong this is, all we need to do is think about those who use wheelchairs, or canes. The reading from the Spirited Walker makes race walking into a moral judgment, and advises us to distract ourselves in order to achieve. But shouldn’t the goal be the opposite? To NOT be distracted; to not make our lives into a series of tasks to do each day in order to be a good person? The author seems to believe that in order to win, she has to trick her mind into mastering her body. I think she has it backwards. Changing a behavior; changing a habit, can actually change your brain — can make you encounter different things, which lead you in new directions, but can also change how you feel. I was talking to a family about the whole issue of sports with kids who don’t do their school work. There are a lot of angles on this one — involving words like “allow” “force” “achieve” etc. Underneath it all, naturally, is a desire that the child become competent, find pleasure, contribute to the world. But we don’t always agree on how best to help that happen, and we do tend to return to the list of failures as a set of worry beads, certain that past problems will grow; that each new effort will add another bead to the chain, until we can hardly lift our heads from the weight of it all. As we were talking, suddenly the dad in this family burst out, “Oh my God, my brother! He was a horrible student, all the way through. Then in ninth grade, he started playing sports, and it was so weird! He was on the honor roll every term after that.” Since the child in this family is entering ninth grade, this was a very helpful memory; but so is the information that the body may be a source of brain growth; that the visual spatial skills acquired in fielding a ball can carry over to writing and geometry; or that the endorphins released while running work better than antidepressants. The brain responds to the body’s discipline just as much as the body is effected by mental effort.

I started this sermon because of a conversation Mary Schilvek and I had last spring. Some of you know Mary; she is a member here. Mary was raised Christian Scientist and we were talking about the problem she has had motivating herself to use her body as a legacy of that faith. She said she was raised to believe in the mind’s ability to control the body, but that now that she is in her 90s, she no longer truly trusts her mind. It keeps telling her to relax and to rest, but if she does that, her body will fail. She needs to not give in. The problem is, she has no muscle memory of pleasure or excitement, and her cognitive memory is no longer reliable. What is there left to go on? Like the story from the Spirited Walker, it seems that she needs to distract herself into continuing — but it is a more interesting problem, too, because her mind is not beating her up and calling her a failure! Her body and her mind are both telling her to relax — yet she does not feel unified. There is still the disquiet we associate with inner conflict, which raises the question of its source. She wants to live; to be physically alive — but having always used her mind to keep active, is not sure what to do. What do you trust? When everything we are taught has us relying on our own self, controlling ourselves, how do we suddenly learn to trust the universe; to identify with something outside?

I think we respond to the story about the African workers resting; taking time, because it captures some of the tension that pervades discussion about nature and nurture. There is no self consciousness in the story; just a simple refusal to let the body be overworked; an insistence on bringing their souls along; and all done in the face of an authority figure. Each of us is born with certain dispositions and tendencies; we exist in conditions that shape us in one way or another; that encourage sets of skills or behaviors, and perhaps what we really need is to learn how to embrace ambiguity; or to accept the idea that wholeness comes from all truth, not the truth. Even though we spend a lot of time looking for affirmation, what we really want goes deeper than that. It isn’t just that we’re good; it is that life is good; that it is interesting and meaningful and moving. Recently I was reading a book by the psychology professor Jerome Kagan called An Argument For Mind, in which he writes about himself as a twelve year old, finding a dead squirrel, wrapping it up and sneaking it up to his bedroom, where, with a kitchen knife, he slices open its belly and probes its life giving organs. When I read the sentence, “the glistening intestines evoked a feeling that may have resembled the state of a future cosmologist staring at the Milky Way at two in the morning”, I thought of two things: Paul Broks, whose book on neuropsychology I read from earlier; and my own Sunday school experience, which was in the 60s and was based in science. We hatched baby chicks and had the ascent of man marching around the walls of our classroom. It seems odd that science can be the home of these debates over truth residing in mind or body; or of character being contingent upon nature or nurture. Science seems to be where we can find unity; where we can be filled with wonder, and reverence, and we can be literally surrounded with examples of why. Life is miraculous. Kagan — the psychologist; the believer in the mind — cannot describe his feeling, but he invokes cosmology — the sense of finding meaning in the universe. Broks, the neurologist; the believer in chemistry, too, soothes himself by thinking about the physical forces that twist the galaxies into shape.

We are raised to believe that meaning is personal; invisible, created from memories and dreams and aspiration; is not so much of the physical world as above it. But the connection between mind and body cannot really exist on a purely individualistic level. Once we give status to the physical world as equal to the metaphysical, we have to talk communally; we have to include the body of the world. Genuine awe and reverence move us beyond the completely personal — they are both deeply interior, and wonderfully exterior. Being at home is cosmological — both desperately specific and unspeakably evanescent. But they are connected, as Mary demonstrated for me in our conversation. Mary and I like to talk about words, and these are ones she brought to the table. The Greek noun for “house” and the verb “to dwell” have as their root another word, which means clan. It is the social unit above the house, and it points to a definition of home as something a little more than just the place where you take to your bed, or where you eat your breakfast. The place where we dwell is about the people with whom we spend our days; and the land upon which we live. It is all related — even when we might wish it were not so. The word parish also has this root; it literally means “beside the house” (as opposed to in it) — but is translated to mean neighbor, sojourner, stranger. All three. Doesn’t that complexity capture the truth of our relationships;? the wariness and the closeness; the edge to our welcoming; our clannishness; or desire to reach out and to include; and our simultaneous need to hold something precious for ourselves? Don’t these common roots tell us to travel the distance between self and home; between my home and yours; to travel the roads of the village and bind all into one; to see the universe as belonging to all life? Take a walk through woods and across streams to reach the town, and stop for berries; make eye contact with the stranger across from you; notice the mystery before your feet. And also, fight for accessibility so that everyone else, regardless of circumstance, can be in those woods; can cross that stream; can be in and of the town as equal neighbors. When I say “taking walks” what I really mean is, be in the world with your senses, which are not really in your head or in your body, but are what keep you tethered to the world.
Thoreau once wrote that he had met only one or two persons who understood the art of taking walks, “who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, ‘There goes a saunterer ‘— a holy-lander. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without home, which, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.” Either meaning works; walking to connect; to find a path to what has been sacred; or walking because we have no home but the bone house that is our shelter. We walk to know our world, and bring it home.

Closing Words from Walking, HD Thoreau
The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours — as the swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day….
you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.
When we walk we naturally go to the fields and woods….I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. … it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is; I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses.

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