First Parish of Watertown


“A Season of Miracles” by Mark W. Harris – December 14, 2008

“A Season of Miracles” by Mark W. Harris – December 14, 2008

“A Season of Miracles” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – December 14, 2008

Opening Words – from Emerson’s Divinity School Address

Jesus belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of humankind (man). One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates the divine (himself) in man and woman, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of the (his) world. He said in this jubilee of sublime emotion, “I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.” . . . He spoke of miracles; for he felt that human ( man’s) life was a miracle, and all that we do (all that man doth), and he knew that this daily miracle shines as the character ascends.”

Sermon – “A Season of Miracles”

I am often confused as to why so many people call the big event of this Christmas celebration, a virgin birth. Don’t they mean a virgin conception, or maybe that immaculate thing is about how Mary was conceived? Growing up Protestant, I was kind of baffled by all this. Or is it about sex, and the story is describing a young girl, who has not been married before? It is all kind of absurd to many liberals anyway. What difference does it make? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about what we do with our lives, than with what kind of lineage we claim? We know now that the ancients wanted to somehow embellish this story to make Jesus more special. God is made the parent, and the child is conceived by miraculous means, a divine zap. Apparently Zoraster, the central figure in the now nearly defunct religion, Zorastrianism, was also conceived in a virginal way. We also know that the Biblical stories we make so much of, Matthew and Luke, are very different tales that we sometimes meld together, and neither has any historical validity, even if we set up crèches in our homes, or sing Away in a Manger so that we make it seem as though they do. The birth stories about Jesus are a kind of Jewish midrash, or compilation of ancient teachings. They build on earlier stories, not only from other religions, but mostly from the Hebrew scriptures, where this kind of holy conception, birth and life events are predicted. Among these are Isaiah 7:14, where it says “Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” These were handy references for those Gospel authors to implement.

We Unitarian Universalists usually do not ascribe to any theories that conception can be anything other than natural. There is no holy spirit floating around looking for special earthly partners. Yet modern times has produced many different kinds of conceptions that we might actually term miraculous; in vitro fertilization comes to mind. Just a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how Andrea’s brother’s doctor had pronounced his cure from asthma, as a miracle. What do we mean by this term miracle? Many of you know my story of being hit by a rogue wave off of Pemaquid Point in Maine, and being dragged out to sea. Some people might say that surviving that kind of encounter was nothing short of miraculous. That’s true, and yet the miracle could have turned out otherwise. I could have been a victim of the wave, too, just as the 911 person said to Andrea over the phone. The last person prior to me who was hit by a wave at Pemaquid was drowned. In fact we often use this term miracle to describe something good or fortuitous or lucky that happened to us, that could have also been a tragedy, too. Sometimes conceiving babies by non conventional means does not work out for some. There is no miracle baby. The special diet may not work for the affliction with asthma, and so there is no miracle cure, and Kevin might still be wheezing. We don’t survive the crash, and so the life we might have been grateful for if we or our loved one survived, is now another tragedy.

Baseball fans may remember the 1914 Miracle Braves, who played in Boston then. This was a team that was in last place on July 4th, and went on to a four game sweep of the Athletics in the World Series. They did something that seemed unlikely, or would not have been predicted, and the amazing nature of this victory or comeback or success against insurmountable odds is deserving of the word, miracle. So, too the miracle USA hockey team could have lost in the 1980 Olympics, and we would never have heard the announcer say, “Do you believe in miracles?”, as the final seconds ticked off the clock, and the evil Russians were defeated. All of these amazing events are declared miracles after they have occurred. Annie Sullivan would not have been the miracle worker if her efforts with Helen Keller resulted in failure, but they didn’t. How often the word comes up in history or in our lives. The unexpected, the amazing, and even the unexplainable all receive the word miracle. Yet no one here would probably ascribe a fortuitous turn of events as a sign of God favoring you and bestowing a miracle upon you. You either got lucky or you made an amazing effort, and somehow it worked.

A major event in our own liberal religious history was called the Miracles Controversy. This was fueled by those radical Transcendentalists, who you heard from in the opening words. Emerson said the Christian definition of miracle was Monster when he gave his famous address before the graduating ministerial students at Harvard. For the Christian Unitarians, the special revelation of their faith had to be confirmed by the miraculous nature of what Jesus did, how he was conceived, lived as a miracle working healer, and was resurrected from the dead. Without those miracles, Christianity was meaningless. Miracles were what made it a revealed faith. The Transcendentalists responded that the truth of Christianity did not need these old stories, but that its power depended upon our awareness of the divine spirit that was made manifest in the life of Jesus, and could also be seen in our lives as well. Jesus spoke of miracles because he believed all of life is a miracle. This is reiterated in a story one of my students from Andover Newton sent me this week. Morgan McLean wrote, “My UU miracle story is from Easter a few years ago when Susan Archer (the minister) asked the kids at the service what a miracle was. A (precocious) ten year old girl (in a proud UU RE moment) said “a miracle is an unexplainable phenomenon that some people believe God creates.” After the laughs stopped, Susan asked if anyone had ever seen a miracle. A four year old shot up his hand to announce “I saw a flower on my way to church today.” Exactly.

Unitarian Universalists believe in miracles, but we see them in different ways than what is traditionally defined as miracle. I believe each of our lives would be spiritually deeper if we embraced this sense of miracles in our midst. The first year I was in theological school I was Director of Religious Education in Davis, California. The RE program was responsible for the Christmas Eve service, and we decided to write and perform a modern day nativity. As a result of this effort, our story had two homeless hippies wandering around San Francisco, wearing the proverbial flowers in their hair. The woman was pregnant, as a result of some indiscretion at a rock festival. The parental lineage was unclear, but nevertheless this one guy was willing to stick by her. Turned away from the St. Francis Hotel on Nob Hill in the city, they somehow ended up at the Unitarian Church of Davis, and various characters there, the live-in sextons, the minister, and the chair of the board welcomed them in some way, and facilitated a warm place with heat, food, and friends for the wandering couple, with the craziest of immaculate conceptions culminating in a birth that could have been a disaster, but was in fact miraculous, partly because we recognize that every birth is miraculous. Every new life is an amazing confluence of miraculous biological history and events that renew life, and offers us new chances or new possibilities for making life, not only endure, but also be more compassionate, more whole.

I thought of this experience of mine when I read the description in the New Yorker of Bishop Paul Moore preaching on Christmas Eve, and his daughter Honor seeing the story as something very real, and very close by, and yet still miraculous. The man has lost his job; they are homeless, and they are turned away because they are African -American. Their life circumstances bring a degree of abject fear. They end up in a less than desirable setting, the garage, and then amidst the rags, the baby is born. Honor Moore says that she could see this story happening right there in her neighborhood. The story, she says, is told in a new way, and while it is the ancient miracle story, it becomes very real in the present. So it tells us that the miracle is present to us, and that it is happening right now. The implication is that the miracle happens every day. Miracle in this sense, asks us what do we see, when we look with our eyes.

Look at your hands. What do you see? Do you see how much work they have done? Think of every bone and muscle and tendon and nerve acting in concert with your brain day after day to do all that you do. Truly amazing! Do you picture these hands holding another, caring for another in the most compassionate way. Do you see them caressing a baby, your baby, holding that diminutive head, and rocking back and forth. Do you see them patting that arched back waiting for the satisfaction of milk? We look at the chest that heaves in breathing, and the softness of skin like nothing you have ever touched before, and the smile that beckons you with warmth and love that owes nothing and only asks for your smile in return. That baby is the quintessential miracle of life returning again and again, so that it might continue, that it might make us a more peaceful and loving race of beings, that he or she might be the messiah among us who would teach us all to be less selfish and more welcoming to new life, if we would only open our eyes and hearts to the miracle of life. This sense of miracle is attitudinal. It comprises a kind of reverence for all of life. It is the little girl who saw the flower on the way to church, and noticed it. It is about looking and noticing. Who among us is in pain, or who planted a flower or a tree so that we might breathe as a people for one more day, or that we as a people might see all the beauty all around us that is flowering every single day?

On the plane ride back here from Seattle yesterday, I was reading a book about the Peabody sisters from Salem. Sophia, the youngest, was an artist, and she eventually married the great writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. She was an invalid for many years, with horrible migraines. The book describes her going to Cuba to attempt to revive her constitution. While there for a year, she was exposed to easy access to wild nature. As she thought about returning to New England, she said she could see more now in a blade of grass than she had ever seen before. She had a Transcendentalist understanding of the divine years before anyone else had expressed it in this way. What do you see when you look? How deep do you go?

If a miracle is about looking deeper at the everyday, at what is around us, then it is also about having a response to life that embodies gratitude. Miracles as described in the story of Jesus are not simply miraculous events that result in a great good. In fact, if you read the Gospels you will see that sometimes Jesus cannot perform the miracle at all or sometimes it takes a second try, and sometimes it is not even desired. Kate Braestrup’s understanding of miracle in Here If You Need Me, is helpful here. All these amazing things that we call miracles, are not necessarily good or lasting things. Someone may not want them. That something great happened once also means that eventually the life that was saved will die. No miracle is forever. Every miracle is not wanted. Braestrup then goes on to describe an instance when a miracle did not happen. All the right set of circumstances did not collude so that this woman could live. She ends up murdered.

She says anything can happen, but only one thing will. It may not be the desired thing, but when it is, and we are given what we desire, then the true miracle comes in the measure of gratitude we feel. Those are the moments when we say a miracle happened. My life was saved. Somehow the water threw me up on rocks. When my oldest son Joel was born, and he was rushed to the neonatal intensive care, there was a fear that he was hopelessly sick due to sepsis. Yet the infection we feared was not present. Hallelujah, the child will live. When we are lucky or when we achieve something great because of our effort or when it is just a crazy set of happenstance, then a miracle is defined when are like the one leper who gives thanks. Gratitude means that we feel fortunate, humble, thankful for whatever we have received. It begins with the basics of life – If there is a roof over our head, or food to eat, or a friend to talk to or health to appreciate or a job to keep. Among these are the miracles that have kept us in life another year. Andrea’s brother rejoices because his health has returned. He can breathe. We not only see the miracle in the life around us, we also give thanks for the life we are given, and it is especially obvious when the life is preserved in a miraculous way. I am here another day. It is a response to life. Can we be grateful for life?

If we see the beautiful miracle of the baby, and feel the gratitude that life is preserved, then we also know that the final part of the miracle is that we can open our hearts in compassion. Everything is given over to the service of love. Every Christmas for me as long as I live will be marked by an immense tragedy which occurred when I was a young minister. On December 24, 1982, when I was minister in Palmer, MA, a young husband and wife who I had conducted a wedding ceremony for were killed along with the man’s father, and the couple’s one year old baby, who I was scheduled to dedicate after the holidays. They were killed in an auto accident by a car driven by a 16 year old drunk driver. The funeral service for all four victims was held a few days later in the church. I wrote this in the church newsletter, reflecting the love of mostly strangers who opened their hearts to this tragedy with profound compassion:

“There was an older man who was out shoveling all of the walks. There was a call from a town official saying that all the snow would be cleared away. There were cards from many who needed to share themselves in words. There was an abundance of food. There were touching hands, glances of care, hugs of warmth – you came to help. Many church members lived through a terrible tragedy over the Christmas holiday. It darkened the starry sky of new birth. You cried and I cried, again and again. It has been a practice of mine to quote the words of the Song of Solomon – “Love is as strong as death” – on sympathy cards. I believe until the last week of December, they were just that – words. Now and only now, I know they are the truth.”

So while I live with the tragedy, I also live with a vibrant memory of the incredibly loving response to this great pain by people all around me. During the conference I was just at, someone said that failure is a time of great opportunity. Failure means that all we hoped and prayed for did not happen – the relationship failed, the child died. And yet when all goes wrong, the doors are also open to something new and miraculous happening. It may not. There is no guarantee that hearts will open, but the miracle occurs when they do. On the rocks or carrying the illness or coming back from defeat, we can get lucky, or not, but there are also often elements of attitude and effort, and so when we see, when we appreciate, and when we act, a space for a miracle is created in our lives. Life is filled with tragedy, and only the miracle of the compassionate heart can fill some of the void left by such pain. The failure means that things can change. The possibility is there. It is a season of the birth of the possible. And so we look to see if the miracle might happen. May we remember the miracle of love – in what we see around us, in what we feel in response to life, and in what we do in relationship with one another. That miracle waiting to be born in each of us this season.

Closing Words – from The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis

Miracles, Miracles! I want you to do something here and now. Perform some miracles to make us believe in you. . . “Everything is a miracle, old man,” Jesus replied. “What further miracles do you want? Look below you: even the humblest blade of grass has its guardian angel who stands by and helps it to grow. Look above you: what a miracle is the star-filled sky! And if you close your eyes, old man, what a miracle the world within us! What a star-filled sky is our heart!”

“Unintended Wisdom” by Mark W. Harris – November 30, 2008

“Unintended Wisdom” by Mark W. Harris – November 30, 2008

“Unintended Wisdom” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – November 30, 2008

Call to Worship from East Coker, Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,

You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess

You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

“Unintended Wisdom” – Mark W. Harris

This morning’s opening words remind me of some of Jesus’ parables. There is a kind of backwards, almost startling character to the nature of the words. You need to become like a child in order to enter the most exalted place of all, the last shall be first, the rich cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. “You must go through the way in which you are not.” I reread those words when I was glancing at an old General Assembly essay by my colleague Gordon McKeeman. You must see the sacred in the banal. You must find wisdom in the insult. Has anyone ever said something to you that seemed insulting or hurtful at first, but then you realized that it carried a great deal of truth in it? A few months back a friend was telling me how he had been present for the births of all his children, but he especially recalled when his son was born. Everyone in the delivery room was wearing scrubs and a mask, but he was not, and so he was concerned that he might get germs on the baby, and felt anxious about picking him up, and finally said, “I don’t have a mask!”. A bellicose nurse then bellowed back, “you have to take him home, you know!” This meant he was going to be exposed to lots of germs, and that babies are a lot tougher than we think, so he should pick him up already! Although the nurse was castigating him for not picking up his son, the wisdom he gleaned was that children are pretty resilient, and usually survive parenting that is never mistake or germ free.

It is curious how much wisdom we glean from life often comes in a backhanded or unintentional way, almost by accident. Perhaps the problem is that we expect we will learn great things from the experts, and can often be disappointed because their fame is part narcissism and self-promotion, and part publicity. When I was in graduate school in history, we had one of the best known colonial historians in the country on our faculty. When he moved through the corridors of the history building he always had this little retinue of devotees following in the footsteps of the esteemed master. It turned out that he was rather a difficult person to deal with, and he was mostly interested in his own research, and the book he was working on rather than helping his students. While my friends thought that worshipping the famous person would get them some where, I soon learned that he did not care about his students. I first thought it would be great to work with this famous historian, but the real lesson was, “Following the stars won’t bring you stardom.” Yet many of us still find it hard to believe that. I was deeply disappointed in a colleague who quit the ministerial support group I am in, so that he could be in the group with all those who are perceived as famous.

The truth is much of the wisdom we gain in life comes when we least expect it, or may not fit what we presume is true, such as, we will get more out of an experience if we work with the most famous people. There s a story about the Sufi fool Nasrudin, who was working in his garden one day. He became tired and sat down under a walnut tree, and soon began musing about the natural surroundings he observed around him. Allah, he said, your greatness is beyond dispute, and you have created a beautiful world, but your wisdom is not always apparent. I am looking at this wonderful, large pumpkin, and yet it grows on a spindly little vine. And conversely, the tiny, insignificant walnut grows on this massive tree that provides such lovely shade for me. If I had been planning things , he said, I would have hung the massive vegetable from the lordly tree, and then grew the tiny little walnut from the vine that clings to the ground. Then he closed his eyes, and dreamed of other things he might have done differently. A cool breeze stirred the branches, and soon a walnut fell and landed smack on his head. He rubbed the little lump, and as he did so an understanding smile crossed his lips. Oh Allah, he said, as he turned toward Mecca, thy wisdom is great. What if I had been hit in the head with the giant, orange pumpkin? Perhaps it is just as well that Isaac Newton was hit with an apple, rather than a blue hubbard squash, for civilization might have needed to wait a century or two for some other scientist to understand the universal law of gravitation.

In 1767, Joseph Priestley, the famous Unitarian minister and scientist, and his wife Mary moved to Leeds in the midlands of England where he took charge of the congregation known as Mill Hill Chapel.  Just by chance, they took up residence next door to a brewery and this soon led him to begin experiments on the carbon dioxide, that was produced in unlimited supplies in the brewing process.  Priestley later wrote of his efforts to “improve the water by impregnating it with fixed air”, and in 1772 he announced his invention of soda-water. Without this accidental bit of wisdom or knowledge gleaned from the brewery, we might still be waiting to drink our first Diet Coke. Of course history is filled with these kinds of unintentional discoveries from perhaps the most famous, that of penicillin, discovered because a fungal mold prevented a staphylococcus bacteria from growing, to the most refreshing, an ice cream cone, from a thin rolled wafer because they ran out of dishes at the World’s Fair in 1909.

We come to see that the expected or the obvious may not result in the greatest wisdom. On Thanksgiving I was speaking to Andrea’s brother about his seemingly miraculous cure from asthma. He has suffered form asthma his entire life, and had always been prescribed inhalers as the one true remedy from his affliction. He had gone to great lengths to try to have bedding he was not allergic to, and to have a home that was as clean of dust mites as possible, but he still continued to suffer. Things got so bad that he was struggling to breathe even with constant inhaler use. Finally, he went to a naturopath, not a famous asthma doctor. The first thing the naturopathic doctor did was test him for allergies. He immediately learned he had a severe wheat and dairy allergy. Now that he doesn’t eat either of them , he is breathing pretty well. When he went back to his asthma doctor, the physician said, “Hey, you don’t have asthma anymore. I don’t need to see you.” But he wasn’t willing to attribute the cure to diet. He’d rather believe it was a miracle. But Kevin knows the change in the way he feels is because of his diet. While the traditional or prescribed cure did not work for him, he had to experiment to see what would help. He said he just kept trying to learn as much as he could.

We can find cures or answers by experimenting, or by not following conventional wisdom. We can also find wisdom in balancing society’s conventions with assertions of our own integrity. When Theodore Parker published his “Experiences as a Minister,” in 1859, he told a story he remembered from his early days of ministry. He wrote, “A rough blacksmith once asked me in my youth, “Do you think a minister would dare tell his audience of their actual faults?” – “Certainly I do!” was my boyish answer. “Humph!” rejoined the smith, “I should like to have him begin then.” This came at time when Unitarian churches were sometimes the purveyors of wealth and high culture in greater Boston, and perhaps prone to accepting proper appearance as more important than truth.

Some of the wisdom we learn can not only be unexpected, but also quite painful. As many of you know, some years ago, a small group in my former congregation wanted to see me ousted from the position as minister. I think I naively thought that if you do the very best job you can do, always fulfill your responsibilities, and are rewarded with a good deal of success, that you cannot be fired from your job. Of course this is a ridiculous thing to believe. People have jobs taken from them all the time, and I know this. I have seen it happen to some of you. Yet I was still a bit stunned when this small group succeeded in convincing the Parish committee, and district and UUA representatives that because they wished for me to go, we should let them win, and they did. I remember my colleague Scotty McLennan saying, if they can do this to you, they can do it to anybody. While this affirmed that I was a valued minister, it didn’t change the bare facts.
Perhaps most grievous of all was the proposed acquiescence with a lie. Most of the congregation had no idea of any trouble, and these folks thought it best if it remained that way. The solution was simple. What the denominational authorities proposed to me was that I appear before a Congregational meeting, and pretend that I really wanted to resign. This was a bad idea. The ministry is a profession grounded in integrity. Do you want a minister who can lie successfully? But in my brokenness, I tried. And at the congregational meeting, I broke down into tears, and couldn’t. The parish chair was furious. What was my lesson? I could have taken some negative unexpected wisdom out of this, like always watch your back side, and don’t trust the people. But it was important for me to learn what life feels like; what can happen to us. Sometimes things don’t work out, and it is not necessarily your fault. But the larger wisdom was that you are not fooling anybody, most especially yourself, when you try to perpetrate a lie to save an image. Maybe we can’t save ourselves from pain, but we don’t have to lose the solace of the truth, too.

Another thing that may be unintended wisdom is when we discover the effect we have upon others. We sometimes forget the impact we have if we only focus on how we feel. Earlier this fall, my colleague Mary Harrington quoted from the book, My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Remen. “It has taken me a long time to realize that I have an effect on the people around me. Like many people who were different when they were young, I suffered for years from shyness and a lack of self worth. All but invisible to myself, I believed I was invisible to others as well and that my presence or absence had little or no influence on anyone. In my early days I would often not respond to a written invitation or return a phone message. Sometimes I would leave a party without a word to anyone, including the host or hostess, It simply never occurred to me that anyone might notice that I had not responded or that I was no longer there, that it might matter. Years later I was stunned to discover that all those years I had been seen as aloof and rude. And that my behavior often hurt people.” There is wisdom in knowing that you leave a message in your comings and goings, in your hellos and goodbyes, that people notice you, that you count, and that people count on you to be respectful and understanding of their overtures and invitations and desire to be with you. But it is wisdom we cannot receive if we don’t believe in our own worth first. If we do not value ourselves enough to know that others like us and feel badly when we dismiss that.

The truth is around us all the time, and perhaps not in the most esteemed person, or the holiest of shrines. In the novel Brick Lane, the husband Chanu has decided that the family will return to Bangladesh from their London home. Nazneen, his wife, asks, “Is this true?” He then speaks of putting truth to the test. We accept so many things as true. That doing a good job means you will never be fired. That we are so worthless we can slip away without anyone really noticing us. That I can’t breathe without the inhaler. Put to the test and we find that the world is complex. You are intertwined with others. “When you feel something so strongly that it can’t be questioned, you have to ask yourself – is this true?” In the book Yearnings by Rabbi Irwin Kula, he quotes his mother, who once said to him “When you’ve got an answer, it’s time to find better questions.” Underlying this matriarchal wisdom is the truth that no single story can capture the meaning. You may feel like walking out of a room, but doing so does not merely impact you or what you need to do, but it also impacts others. We find more wisdom the deeper we go. We find more wisdom when we hear more stories.

Stories remind us that everybody needs to be heard. Stories challenge us with new truths, new complexities; an angle that enriches us all. Here was the important professor who only cared for his research hounded by students who wanted to learn. Here, too was the woman who felt so badly about herself she thought she didn’t matter, and yet she offended others in her very attempt to be invisible. Wisdom is found in those stories that we find hard to embrace because they force us to go deeper into ourselves, and connect with those who have a claim on truth that is different than our own. An asthma doctor whose patient is cured, but not by the medicine he prescribed. Hearing this truth embraces a deeper wisdom about life. We must doubt our truth to enter a path to deeper wisdom, and we find the holy in these little kernels of truth – in the incidental and in the accidental stories we share. We find it in the rude nurse who says, pick up the baby already and stop being a wimp; in the willingness to experiment and test the truth; in the truth of knowing our impact on others. That is where we find love, in the most unexpected places. The season of Advent reminds us that we are about to retell a story where we find that holiest of feelings, not in the cathedral or the castle or in the realms of power and privilege, but in the person we think of as helpless, the baby, and in the place that is lowly, the stable filled with animals. May we reach deeper for that unintended wisdom that is waiting to be gleaned from our lives.

Closing Words from Tennessee Williams, Where I Live

The great and only possible dignity of man lies in his power deliberately to choose certain moral values by which to live steadfastly, as if he, too, like a character in a play, were immured against the corrupting rush of time. Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the greatest magic trick of human existence.

“Counterfeit Ways” by Mark W. Harris – October 19, 2008

“Counterfeit Ways” by Mark W. Harris – October 19, 2008

“Counterfeit Ways” by Mark W. Harris

October 19, 2008 – First Parish of Watertown

Call to Worship – from Arnold Ludwig

Fantasy often represents a convenient way for people to temporarily lie to themselves in order to make life more palatable. Although (we) may not fully believe in the actual reality of the products of (our) fantasy, (we) can invest enough belief in them to offer (ourselves) some degree of satisfaction. If (we) were to remain chronically frustrated in the satisfaction of (our) hopes, ambitions and desires, without having access to the solace of fantasy and the temporary solutions and pleasures it provides, it would become difficult to sustain hope and optimism toward the future.

Readings – from Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout
from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Sermon – “Counterfeit Ways” Mark W. Harris

There are many Islamic tales from the Sufi tradition that feature the fool Nasrudin. One story tells of a neighbor who Nasrudin didn’t like very much. He came to Nasrudin’s house one day, and asked him if he could borrow Nasrudin’s donkey. Not wanting to loan his animal to a neighbor he didn’t care for, Nasrudin told him, “I would love to loan you my donkey, but only yesterday my brother came from the next town to use it to carry his wheat to the mill to be ground. Sadly, the donkey is not here.” The neighbor was disappointed. He thanked Nasrudin, and began to walk away. Unfortunately, when he was only a few steps away, Nasrudin’s donkey which had been out behind the house the whole time, let out a very loud bray. Upon hearing this, the neighbor turned to Nasrudin, and said, Mullah Sahib, I thought you told me that your donkey was not here. Nasrudin then turned to the neighbor and said, “My friend, who are you going to believe? Me or the donkey?

How many of us have used deception to try to fool one of our neighbors to keep them from using something of ours? While most of us might not refuse to help on the grounds that we simply dislike the person, there is often an unwillingness to help based on prior experience with the person. Somehow the lawn mower we have loaned so many times before always comes back broken, or the tool is missing a piece, or years go by and the neighbor seems to have forgotten who the item in question belonged to the first place. At our cottage in Maine, Andrea and I have had the unsavory problem recently of dealing with a neighbor who refused to move a tractor trailer from our property for years, after we gave them permission to park there for one winter. In the end we had to sue her, as she claimed the property was really hers. Would you let her park on your property again? With the missing or broken items the logical response might be to confront the person, and say I can’t loan you this item because of prior experience. Unfortunately that honesty sometimes results in a very angry response, so that the neighbor you once waved to on a daily basis, refuses to look your way for a year. Sometimes deception really works. I would love to loan you that first edition, but my insurance policy prevents me from doing so, or you know I gave my steam cleaner to my brother, and never got it back. Otherwise, I would be happy to loan it to you. A little deception, and the neighbor stays friendly, but never asks again to borrow that item that you do not really want to part with. So we can see that deception may lead to some neighborhood social cohesion, and a little piece of mind for you.

What? Is the minister suggesting that we use deception on a daily basis? Isn’t the clergy usually imploring us to speak and live with integrity, and not try to be deceptive? Is this a new approach to faith development? Some years ago, David Rankin, a former minister of this church told the story of meeting with a search committee from a Unitarian Universalist church here on the East coast. He said it was a very congenial meeting until one of the member of the committee asked about his personal theology. When Rankin responded that he was a Christian, the faces turned suddenly to stone and the room went dead. All the air was suddenly sucked out. Finally, he said after the longest meditation he had ever endured, the chair of the search committee said, “Well, maybe we won’t have to tell anyone.” This did not meet Rankin’s criteria for honesty and integrity, and so it ended his conversation with this church forever. Perhaps it reminds us of the military policy on gay and lesbian soldiers of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It was unfair and unjust to the integrity of all those soldiers to be closeted in order to serve. We would all want full disclosure and full acceptance. Yet as much as we abhorred “don’t ask, don’t tell, it also reflected a reality about the society.

I see that reality in colleagues from many faith traditions. They are Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist and Catholic. Being actively gay or lesbian in any of those traditions is not accepted. You can be defrocked. You can have your calling to ministry be denied, if you admit what your sexual identity is in any way, shape or form. Just two years ago I conducted a wedding for two women, one of whom was an Episcopal priest. Her own pastor could not marry her, and she could not publicly reveal that she was united in marriage to the woman she loved, something all straight people just take for granted. Yet clearly her calling, her identification with her faith tradition is so meaningful, even if it asks her to deny her very being, the use of deception outweighs the truthfulness of publicly stating who she is. I am sure it is painful living with this deception, but the alternative is for some people, more painful. And perhaps, too, there is always the hope that we can be change agents within the institution, so that some day deception will be less necessary.

While this seems like a violation of their personal integrity on some level, it also speaks a truth that in many circumstances, all of us use some forms of deception in order to make our way in the world – to save our livelihood, our families, our sense of privacy, and even our lives. Sometimes we are not ready to reveal something until the time is right, or we feel comfortable, and so, in the meantime we use deception. Sometimes this deception is perpetrated upon us. This is something clergy live with every day. People in the community frequently project their ideas of what clergy should be like all the time. In the reading from Gilead, we see how the joking stops when boys are around the minister. It is like my former parishioner in Milton, who always apologized when she said a swear word around me, even something as innocuous as hell, because somewhere in her conscience she was not suppose to say such words in front of clergy, as it will besmirch their purity of body and spirit, or else maybe it is the fear of swearing before God’s representative will surely send you to hell. For me, the reality is I can swear with the best blasphemers. Sometimes it seems as though we clergy live out this deception of who we are. People’s projections may reflect that they expect us to be different than human somehow. It is reflected in what the minister in Gilead says, “people see us as being a little bit apart.” Perhaps he also feels he must keep his dying condition a secret, so the parishioners are not faced with the reality of his demise. All of this reminds us that there is, as he says, “a lot under the surface of life.” There is a lot of malice and dread and guilt and loneliness. I have had conversations about how it is acceptable for parishioners to not believe in God, but since I am clergy it is expected that I have to believe in God. I have to represent that reality. Perhaps the deception lives on, even among liberals that the clergy must live believing that God exists, even if they do not. Somehow it gives comfort, or security or hope in a chaotic world.

The security of deception is real. Nature built that right in. Merely surviving in the world depends upon camouflage – how creatures become the color of their environment striped or brown or white in order that they might better blend in to protect themselves from predators. They are deceiving the hunters so that they might live. We also enhance our true colors in order to propagate, as the male birds wear brighter coats to attract a partner who is coaxed into mating by such beauty. In similar ways humans use deceptive touches to enhance our beauty that partners might be attracted to us. The story of Adam and Eve illustrates the key role of deception, and how an awareness of good and evil is necessary to live in the world.

Art forms are also used in deceptive ways to beautify an area or even to trick the viewer into believing that he/she is seeing something actual when in fact it is an illusion. In Boston at Mass Ave. and Boylston we see a building painted on a otherwise undescriptive wall, and perhaps we wonder if there is a real building there, or if part of it contains a real window or a door. Near Sheffield in England, where Andrea and I stayed a few years ago, there is a grand country estate called Chatsworth House. On one of the interior doors, it appears as though a violin and its bow are suspended, but as you approach the objects, you realize it is only painted to appear as though they are there. Churches may have columns that are not really there, or soaring arches that are only an illusion. This effect is called Tromp l’œil, or “trick the eye.” It is an art technique involving extremely realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects appear in three-dimensions, even though it is really a two dimensional painting. It is almost as if the human psyche enjoys being tricked, as we have all experienced in magic shows.

The original idea for this sermon arose out of seeing the movie The Counterfeiters. It is an academy Award winning foreign film which tells the story of Salomon or “Sally” Sorowitsch, who is Berlin’s most famous forger. It is based on the true life story of a man who used his counterfeiting skills to helps the Nazis implement a plan for forging the British pound and the American dollar, and then using the counterfeit currency to flood the market, and destabilize the two country’s economies. It was called Operation Bernhard. At first it seems as though Sally is operating out of the sheer need for self-preservation, as he finds some protection and comforts and privileges from painting portraits of German guards and their families in the concentration camp. These privileges increase as he is transferred to a section of a camp devoted to forgery. As the counterfeiting operation begins to unfold, a socialists printer objects as he feels what they are doing supports the German war effort. We realize with Sally that the idealism of living with pure integrity cannot be possible in such a situation. At one point Sally castigates the printer by saying, “Nobody’s prepared to die for a principle.” Although it appears at first as though he is only looking out for his own neck, we soon learn that Sally, despite his life of deception and crime is now using those skills to address broader questions of life and death, especially when they come to appreciate the wider war that the Nazis are fighting , and most especially his relationships with others in the community of the camp, and his concern for them. Keeping them alive becomes more important than anything. We see the complexities of balancing the demands of the Nazis who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals, fellow prisoners who want to sabotage the operation, and his growing attachment to his fellow inmates. When do you stop cooperating with evil? How do you balance staying alive with your obligations to others, and the challenge to fight injustice? While life in the camps was more horrific than anything we could ever imagine, the Counterfeiters also reminds us how much guile or deception it takes to survive in our world, in the complex balancing of life’s struggles. In these times of fear and chaos, we want to protect our families, and have some hope in a future where we can pay our bills and maintain our homes. And the world is often not a place where others seem to live with integrity or concern for others.

It seems odd perhaps to say that deception can help us balance the threats on our lives. Most of us live on the brink of being fed up with deception having just about seen the end of the Presidential campaign. We know that many presidential candidates will tell us anything we want to hear in order to get our vote and to get elected. This is exasperating because we want to hear the truth and we want to know that we can trust our future presidents with such an important job. Then we hear accusations of association with terrorists that are exaggerated rumors or outright lies. And even when the falsehood that the candidate is a Muslim, for instance is dismissed as untrue, we never address the question of what would be wrong if a candidate were a Muslim? Perhaps it is just like the clergyperson who must at least appear to believe in God, the candidate must at least appear to be Christian, so there is a secure, comfort level that we are in no danger. Television tries to provide a truth meter on how close the candidates claims are to actual truth. Yet isn’t it absurdly ironic that a media based on the creation of false images is the judge of how truthful each candidate really is.
The Rev. Tyler Caskey, the main character in Abide with Me, seems very different from Sally, the lifelong criminal. In the passage I read, Charlie says Tyler would turn the other cheek if he popped him one. Perhaps he seems closer in spirit to the idealist activist in the movie who lives by the power of an idea, and Sally ends up protecting him. In his conversation with Charlie, Tyler hears how his parishioners are out to get him, due to a rumored affair with his housekeeper. He is told they go after weakness, especially when they expect you to be strong. Charlie seems to say in their conversation that the Christianity Tyler offers up is a deception. He says it is gobbledygook that he carries on with as though it meant something. He uses it to make himself feel superior. Now it appears as though Tyler, who has never had a satisfactory relationship with his daughters, finally wishes to move beyond the facades of ministerial role and Christian doctrine. He responds that faith does mean something, “if you think how we live our lives means something.” Tyler does not want his religion to be based on false ideas or deceptive roles or pipe dreams of rosy futures. He wants his faith and his life to be real. He does not care what people think. He wants it to be a living truth in the present.

In the novel Gilead, the lonely old minster probably would have given anything to have been able to laugh with the boys. He realized that sometimes deception is good in the service of relationships, to protect oneself or others, to fantasize, or to keep the peace, but the tragic deception is when we believe in a lie. He was not ready perhaps to share that he was dying, but if he could have been human with the boys, and lived in the moment with them., then his life would have seemed more meaningful. We need deception sometimes because we need to hide our pain or sorrow, but we can’t live our lives believing in false promises, that it is going to get better and better, as it may not. Most of us are slugging it out day to day, and in our daily realization of how vulnerable we are to larger forces in the world, disease and personal trauma, we are only too aware of how dangerous and fearful life is. We can be wiped out. The link between Sally and Tyler is that they want to reject the bigger illusion or deception that so many people put their faith in – that human progress or religious salvation will make it all better. Instead they use smaller deceptions to protect the self in their vulnerability and then the self is truly free to embrace the reality of meaning found only in relationship, in the moment.

Life sometimes hangs in the balance. People come after us, and want to take our property or our livelihood. When I lost a job once, the person who engineered my demise said to someone, “I didn’t want to wreck his life or anything.” It was my family, my friends, and members of this congregation who stood by and helped. It didn’t make losing my livelihood any better. But it made it bearable. I was not so alone. Then I could begin again. We are hurt by calamity and disease. It is a jungle, and so we protect ourselves with what deceptions we have. We take care of our families. We are loyal to our friends. We affirm the right of privacy. In the real world Adam and Eve are forced from the idea of Eden because it does not exist. No paradise, only here and now with each other. They come to recognize that the real world is their literal fight against being hurt, losing relationships, and feeling alone. They will use their wills to seek the good because so much evil can befall them. And so we do what we can to stay afloat, affirming the loves and loyalties we have for self and others. Our faith must be grounded, not in a principle like reason or progress or salvation in the sweet by and by, but in love, right now. We must have the will to turn to one another, and not say, I know it will turn out all right, but rather, however it turns out, I will stick by you, I will support you and I love you.

Closing Words – from Annie Dillard

Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.

“Walk in Beauty” by Mark W. Harris – September 28, 2008

“Walk in Beauty” by Mark W. Harris – September 28, 2008

“Walk in Beauty” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – September 28, 2008

Opening Words from Ellen Sturgis Hooper

I slept, and dreamed that life was Beauty;
I woke, and found that life was Duty.
Was thy dream then a shadowy lie?

Toil on, sad heart, courageously,
And thou shalt find thy dream to be
A noonday light and truth to thee.

Reading – from “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan

Sermon – “Walk in Beauty” Mark W. Harris

My parents had little or no understanding of music or art, except to know what they liked. I don’t say that to be critical of them. No one ever taught them. It is just how it was. They didn’t know Bach from Beethoven from Brahms, and frankly neither do I. As a minister I have enjoyed learning something about music appreciation. My parents favored Lawrence Welk and Liberace, while I rocked on with the Beatles and Stones. The same was true of art appreciation in my house. My parents didn’t know Manet from Monet from Modigliani, and so our walls ended up being filled with what they liked, which was pictures of people, especially dead ancestors, but living ones, too. We had a few painted wooden eagles here and there to remind us that we lived in a Federal period house, but mostly what I remember is the portraits. There was this popular fad in the mid-twentieth century of taking photographs, and converting them to oil paintings, and so our living room was adorned with two large paintings of my parents. At some point my mother’s portrait which was reproduced from a photo taken sometime in her forties was replaced with another portrait based on a photo of her as a young nursing student when her hair was long, luxurious and black. Perhaps she wanted a representation of herself when she perceived that she was more beautiful. As I was growing up, other family matriarchs were added to the portrait gallery, and since I loved history and genealogy this was meaningful to me, too.

Last week when Andrea was waxing eloquently about England and their bizarre ways of drying clothes. I was reminded of what A. A. Gill, the author of The Angry Island, had said about art and England. He wrote that the English mistrust art because its meaning is not direct and clear. Art is emotional and can be voluptuous, and so the English prefer portraiture because all of it can be judged by one simple criteria – they want it to mean the same thing to everyone, like a chair, or steam engine or a picture of someone, which either looks like someone or doesn’t. So it is not really art, but instead requires only talents like craft and skill. It has been said the American artist John Singer Sargent had drawing skills like few people who have ever lived, but he lacked imagination, depth or meaning, and so his art consisted of well executed but empty portraits of rich people. So perhaps my parents, and many of us have inherited this English mistrust of art. We go for the simple and straight forward, and so many people marvel when they say the painting looks just like a photograph. The closest my parents got to art appreciation was when they discovered Andrew Wyeth. His stark portraits of people and houses was appealing to them because I think they saw as it as an extension of their love of portraiture and realism that would not fool them. They could understand its simplicity and direct imagery drawn from life experiences, and to them it was not emotional or abstract, even though Wyeth himself has used that latter word to describe his art.

The other portrait that filled our house was that classic picture of the Nordic looking Jesus with the long flowing, wavy hair outlining his serene, loving gaze. Our portrait was a desk model that had a little light that could shine on the image from above. As a boy, I suppose the idea was that this living room adornment would reinforce that Jesus loved me and all the children of the world, just as we sang in Sunday school, but I don’t think it was ever considered art like El Greco’s painting of “Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple” or Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus,” or maybe it was. My own conversion to art appreciation occurred when I was assigned an elementary school project by the art teacher, who was this lanky, blond woman who would show up at my rural two room school house once or twice a week in this zippy little red MG. Her appearance for a variety of reasons was cause for celebration. While my skills at drawing was limited to stick figures, the opportunity to research, and assemble a booklet with photos of paintings I found in old magazines was exciting, as it combined many of the things I already loved, and in fact always have. I learned about artists and art history, but was also introduced to Vincent van Gogh.

Those paintings of his produced an emotional response in me, and this remains true today. When I look on the images I know I am moved. They shake my very soul. And so the corn fields seems to wave, and the sunflowers are bursting with life, but while the colors and thickness of paint are not the skillful reproduction of the perfect photographic image, there is something that sees through to the soul of the person like the poor, peasants in the Potato Eaters you can view here in Boston, or to the very heart of nature as in the famous Starry Night. This painting was the cause of our Harris family pilgrimage to New York a couple of years ago, as it had moved our youngest on sight, just as it had moved me so many years ago. There you see the dark night with the tree leaning skyward echoing the church steeple nearby, while all the stars vibrate in a night that is magically alive. To help children see and enjoy beauty in life and in art is to help them know what is holy.

As a young man van Gogh was a preacher whose calling did not work out so well, but he turned to painting pictures of those same peasants he ministered among. One of his biographers says, he described this as a kind of conversion experience: “Even in that deep misery I felt my energy revive, and I said to myself, in spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I had forsaken in my discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing. From that moment everything has seemed transformed for me.” So his art became his religious expression of faith in God and the simple piety of the poor hardworking folks. This was a God who he said “was not dead or stuffed, but alive, urging us to love, with irresistible force. . . . Our purpose is self-reform by means of a handicraft and of intercourse with Nature — our aim is walking with God.” Van Gogh tried to capture what he saw of the infinite in the subjects of everyday life. “I prefer painting people’s eyes to cathedrals,” he wrote, “for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral, however solemn and imposing the latter may be — a human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a street walker, is more interesting to me.” When recounting the birth of a coal miner’s calf he described it as a sacred event, analogous to the birth of Christ, with the numinous quality of a beautiful painting. (1.) His Potato Eaters is a kind of communion of family dinner illuminated by the lamp of the table, which represents a “white light” that can shine in our lives. So for me as a young boy who had few skills at drawing or playing a musical instrument, there was still this inexpressible, sudden realization that I could feel this incredibly deep meaning that conveyed the beauty and wonder of life through works of art, and I would simply need to pursue something expressive that could transform me through observation, living, writing, decorating, gardening or cooking (which were my father’s creative outlets), or even adorning myself. There is the balanced discipline of learning a craft coupled with the flair of creativity. How could I express my creative spirit?

We Unitarian Universalists come out of a Protestant, and more specifically Congregational tradition, especially here in New England. That Puritan faith we evolve from was attempting to purify a church in England that had been Catholic up until the time when Henry VIII decided he wanted to get divorced, and create a new church with himself as the head. This week I was looking at a book called Stripping the Altars, which literally describes what the early Protestants in England hoped to do, but what the Puritans took even further. They were partly reacting against a church where no one could read, and so the Bible stories had been told in elaborate stain glass windows, and images of Jesus and other saints decorated the sanctuary in chapels and altars. The church had developed cults of saints, and venerated images and objects. The Puritans especially wanted to have a direct relationship with God, and so all of these images of the holy were rejected because the Bible told them that creating images of God was idolatrous. They did not pray to saints or expect that relics would provide special healing power, but rather wanted a direct experience of God, and thought they would feel that most powerfully by reading the word of God that they found in their Bibles. They rejected religious art because they didn’t need the holy represented for them, or to be told what it meant. They wanted to feel God directly in their lives through the impact of reading. So while it seems that Puritan meetinghouses are devoid of art because there are no statues, or stained glass, the emotional religious response is really two fold. You need to find God or the holy for yourself, and no priest is going to tell you what it is or what it looks like. You are the creative source of faith. And second, it needs to be directly experienced; it is not idealized in a cathedral or with stained glass, but in a simple dwelling that looks out on the world. This is what you have; each other or potato eaters in a humble home. The potter’s clay is yours to shape.

It could be that the English suspiciousness of art comes from this period when religious art was rejected. While it may simply seem like it is devoid of Jesus and Mary or any images because it is so stark or only word filled, there is also the possibility of a conversion like van Gogh had, so that the soul infuses all of life. The problem is that this kind of freedom is scary to many of us. We are afraid of the blinding light, and turn to alternatives to keep the spirit occupied. Perhaps the classic way of describing this is with the child who is given a pen or marker and told to draw. We have all seen the child who is uninhibited in use of color or line or expression, but we have probably also been the adult who wants to make sure that rules of reproducing exact, portrait like images are followed. How many of us say , “oh I can’t draw”, and therefore conclude that our ability to be artistic is thus non existent.

For many years a man named Tim Ashton was the UUA’s District Executive in this area. He knew me for a long time through work at the UUA, and then as minister in Milton, and finally here. Whenever Tim saw me after Andrea and I had started dating, he always made a comment on how sharp I was dressing, or how my clothes matched for the first time ever. He had known me as a drab, depressed and dumpy looking young minister, and now suddenly I was a fashionable, flashy and fit looking guy, well maybe not so flashy or fit, but at least I looked like I cared. The change occurred partly because I had a partner who knew what clothes went together, and made me aware that there were colors besides dark blue and green, but also because there was a change in me. I was in love. There was a change of heart. I had a direction and a devotion. I once preached a sermon here on Princess Diana, as a representation of beauty. By typical sexist standards, she was not a physical beauty, and yet her spirit, her vivaciousness, her obvious love of life made her beautiful, at least in the eye of this beholder.

One problem we all have is that the beauty that is our very being and the artistic expression of our soul’s beauty is not always easy to accomplish. In her novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison reflects upon the young black girl who learns that the idea of physical beauty in our culture is that you must have blue eyes, or you must be white. Morrison writes about our cultural ideal of beauty as one of “the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. (It) originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion. In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap.” If the other girl was cute, then she was not. She lacked the thing that would have made her cute. Sometimes that inability to see our own beauty leads us to grasp at the shallow reflections of beauty that are found in the consumer culture. There is a classic scene in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where Daisy is with Gatsby and he begins to throw one shirt after another onto a bed – shirts of silk, and linen, in many colors and monogrammed in blue. Daisy bends her head into the shirts and begins to weep. “They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such- such beautiful shirts before.”

Some of us search for beauty in our appearance, and we try to alter our given beauty with an acquired beauty forged in the image of society and culture or we fear losing that natural or acquired beauty as we age, even as my mother symbolically did when she replaced one portrait with another. And some of us search for the artistic expression of that longing for beauty in our lives, and continually try to surrounded ourselves in the beauty of more and more acquisitions.
How do we draw that line between having the clothes that reflect the beauty we feel, and the clothes that may be beautiful but function as a shallow facade for an empty shell? The Puritans would have said the beauty of the old church was a facade of control and manipulation. It is obedience to false gods, and its art demands that you censor your feelings and passion in service to its authority. And while we may no longer be battling with the relics of the ancient church, we still have issues around manipulation. How can I live a beautiful life that breaks free of these manipulations to buy every day, or be a certain way?

I have been wanting this church to purchase matching chairs for a long time. I suppose we could go the old Yankee route and say use them up until they are all worn out, but in case you haven’t noticed, we have been losing about one purple chair a week to breakage. The old red chairs were useful for a long time, but they were purchased nearly 35 years ago. The purple ones are breaking and the folding ones are just plain old and ugly. I equate the way we look now with the way I use to look before I met Andrea. I was serviceable, but I look dumpy and unexciting. All matching chairs means not only that we match, but that we look sharp. We look welcoming. We look like we care. But beyond that it looks like we want to do something. We want to make a difference in the world. Our faith matters. If we are a church that just wants to exist to be serviceable and functioning, then we are a far way from striving for the creation of beauty in our ourselves and in our community. This is our sacred space. How is it going to reflect the beauty we want from life and religion? This is not Gatsby’s piles of facade, or altar pieces of coercion. This is the reflection that we are a vibrant people who are growing and building a strong congregation.

This past week Andrea and I received some church jokes via email . Among them was this: A Sunday School teacher began her lesson with a question, “Boys and Girls, what do we know about God? A hand shot up in the air. “He is an artist! said the kindergarten boy. Really? How do you know? the teacher asked. You know, Our father who does art in heaven . . .” After you snicker a little, I want you to reflect on doing art as an exercise in finding the holy in yourself. God does art in you. This past week after I finished teaching at Andover Newton, I picked up a little flyer about the chapel at school. On it was this poem from the second century church father Iraneus. I want you to not feel coerced by the language, but to listen: “It is not you who shape God; but God that shapes you. If then you are the work of God, await the hand of the artist who does all things in good time. Offer the Potter your heart, soft and pliable, and keep the form in which the Artist has fashioned you. Let your clay be moist, lest you become hard and lose the imprint of the Potter’s fingers.” What is given to you is good, and within that goodness, you must find the holy. I have never been much of a creative artist, but two summers ago at Ferry Beach, when I didn’t have to spend so much time teaching, Andrea and I worked with our boys and the art director to mold ocarinas, little flute like instruments. It was great fun, and they even made a noise when we finished. When our clay hardens, we may be working incessantly or doing our duty, and not take the time to mold something new that will make music in the world. We have lost touch with our emotional outlets. Sometimes I like to cook. Sometimes I like to write. But the beauty in us is that each of us can produce a lasting work of beauty – maybe it is your house or your garden, your apple pie or your ocarina. But we must be in touch with our hearts so that we can feel our passion.

It is not merely the skill of learning a craft, it the is freedom in your soul to discover a fresh way to look at something, a fresh way to create something, or even perhaps a fresh way to look. Frank Lloyd Wright was America’s greatest architect. Today in our reading you heard a fictionalized version of his relationship with Mamah Cheney. While they each may have lacked the commitment and dedication to stay with their original married partners, what they did do was remind us of the balance we need in our lives that when we become too rigid in living, the clay loses its moistness, and beauty and passion drift out of our lives. In the novel, Wright tells Mamah: “You’ve talked about your longing to find that thing – that gift – which makes your heart sing.” Most of us don’t have the luxury of living free in nature like Frank LLoyd Wright, but it does remind us to live with a passion for life. A fullness of living is what will help each of us feel and know what is holy. We do art with our lives. We seek beauty all around us – in the passions we express – in the beauty we exude, by the warmth of our love in the presence of each other. Life makes artists of us all, as we create new passion in our lives. Let us feel and express the beauty within urging us to live and love with irresistible force.

Closing Words – Navaho poem

In Beauty may you walk.
All day long may you walk.
Through the returning seasons may you walk.
On the trail marked with pollen may you walk.
With grasshoppers about your feet may you walk.
With dew about your feet may you walk.

With Beauty may you walk.
With Beauty before you, may you walk.
With Beauty behind you, may you walk.
With Beauty above you, may you walk.
With Beauty below you, may you walk.
With Beauty all around you, may you walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of Beauty,
lively, may you walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of Beauty,
living again, may you walk.
It is finished in Beauty.
It is finished in Beauty.

 1. “From Preaching to Painting: Van Gogh’s Religious Zeal” by Kathleen Powers Erickson

“My Bad or Yours?” by Mark W. Harris – June 1, 2008

“My Bad or Yours?” by Mark W. Harris – June 1, 2008

“My Bad or Yours?” Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – June 1, 2008

Call to Worship – Philippians 4: 8

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Reading – “In Front of Your Nose” by George Orwell” (1946)

Many people … are capable of holding [two] totally contradictory ideas in their heads at a single moment. This . . . habit of mind . . . is extremely widespread, and perhaps always has been. Bernard Shaw, in the preface to Androcles and the Lion, cites as [an] example the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which starts off by establishing the descent of Joseph, father of Jesus, from Abraham. In the first verse, Jesus is described as ‘the son of David, the son of Abraham’, and the genealogy is then followed up through fifteen verses: then, in the next verse but one, it is explained that as a matter of fact Jesus was not descended from Abraham, since he was not the son of Joseph. This, says Shaw, presents no difficulty to a religious believer. . . Medically, I believe, this manner [of] thinking is called schizophrenia: at any rate, it is the power of holding simultaneously two beliefs which cancel out. Closely allied to it is the power of ignoring facts which are obvious and unalterable, and which will have to be faced sooner or later. It is especially in our political thinking that these vices flourish. Let me take a . . . sample. . . of plain, unmistakable facts being shirked by people who in another part of their mind are aware to those facts.

(Among the examples he lists is this one:) Hong Kong. For years before the war everyone with knowledge of Far Eastern conditions knew that our position in Hong Kong was untenable and that we should lose it as soon as a major war started. This knowledge, however, was intolerable, and government after government continued to cling to Hong Kong instead of giving it back to the Chinese. Fresh troops were even pushed into it, with the certainty that they would be uselessly taken prisoner, a few weeks before the Japanese attack began. The war came, and Hong Kong promptly fell — as everyone had known all along that it would do. . .

There is no use in multiplying examples. The point is that we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.

When one looks at the all-prevailing schizophrenia of democratic societies, the lies that have to be told for vote-catching purposes, the silence about major issues, the distortions of the press, it is tempting to believe that in totalitarian countries there is less humbug, more facing of the facts. There, at least, the ruling groups are not dependent on popular favour and can utter the truth crudely and brutally. Goering could say ‘Guns before butter’, while his democratic opposite numbers had to wrap the same sentiment up in hundreds of hypocritical words.

Actually, however, the avoidance of reality is much the same everywhere, and has much the same consequences. The Russian people were taught for years that they were better off than everybody else, and propaganda posters showed Russian families sitting down to abundant meals while the proletariat of other countries starved in the gutter. Meanwhile the workers in the western countries were so much better off than those of the U.S.S.R. that non-contact between Soviet citizens and outsiders had to be a guiding principle of policy. Then, as a result of the war, millions of ordinary Russians penetrated far into Europe, and when they return home the original avoidance of reality will inevitably be paid for in frictions of various kinds. The Germans and the Japanese lost the war quite largely because their rulers were unable to see facts which were plain to any dispassionate eye. To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.

Sermon – “My Bad or Yours?” Mark W. Harris

There is a story about the Turkish teacher Nasrudin that begins with a scheduled visit by a philosopher who was going to debate an issue with him. But when the philosopher came to his house, he did not find Nasrudin at home. He had forgotten the plan and was off playing board games and telling stories in his teahouse. The philosopher waited some time, and then grew quite angry. Finally he picked up a piece of chalk and wrote, “Stupid Oaf,” across Nasrudin’s door, and stomped away. Soon thereafter Nasrudin came home, saw the writing, and ran off to the philosopher’s house. When the door opened, Nasrudin blurted out his apology. “I completely forgot our appointment. I apologize for not being home. Of course I remembered the appointment as soon as I saw that you had left your name on the door.” What names do you leave on doors? Why is it so hard for us to admit our human fallibility? Why we do we go to the ends of the earth to affirm our beliefs even when there is positive proof that we are in error?

If you were brought up in a Christian tradition, as I was, then you learned many stories where Jesus told his listeners to reflect upon how often they are in error. When the crowd is about to stone the woman taken in adultery, Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Why is it so easy to see someone else’s error, and not our own? Again recall Jesus saying, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you don’t see the log in your own eye?” Yet it is one thing to mouth these ancient stories, and then actually struggle with how hard it is for each of us to admit that we are wrong, or that a belief we hold to be true is false, or that we don’t even see the biases we have. It is because we are hard-wired for self-justification. We not only want to be right, we assure ourselves that we are right in countless ways and instances. Otherwise the toll on us emotionally would be enormous. So instead of being contrite, we go on the attack telling the aggrieved party why they are wrong and how they actually induced the mistake. Think how hard it is to go to someone and say, “I made a mistake.”

The genesis of this sermon as you can deduce from the title is the phrase “my bad.” This is the current lingo for admitting a mistake. My son Dana says it all the time, and apparently picked it up at school. If he spills the milk, or leaves his portable game system at a baseball field, he will blurt out “my bad”, meaning my mistake. A little more sincere regret, like I am terribly sorry, might be better, but at least this is something. It minimally acknowledges some sense of owning up to a mistake. As you saw in the newsletter, my most vivid example of this new word usage occurred at a local pizzeria. I went in to the shop and ordered a slice of pizza and a side salad. A couple of minutes later the clerk asked me if I wanted to pay, and since he had my lunch all bagged, and I had selected a drink, and even though it seemed quick, I concluded that the slice must have been in the bag. I walked back to my office in the rain only to discover that the bag contained only a salad with no pizza in sight. I was thinking, “stupid oaf.” So I trudged back to the shop, and he immediately recognized me. I was pleased that he acknowledged his own mistake by saying,”My bad.” He give me the slice and I was on my way. We made it a pleasant ending to a small retail mistake. But what if I was driving for miles and discovered the error much later? Or what if he was the kind of clerk who felt I was rushing him, or that he was too busy, and it was management’s fault for not hiring more help. What if he was determined to blame his mistake on someone else because he didn’t want to look bad, or besmirch his own sense of his worth as an outstanding employee.

This problem is discussed in a recent book that was recommended in the New York Times for all the presidential candidates as highly appropriate summer reading. It is called Mistakes Were Made(But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts. The authors Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson say it all comes down to “cognitive dissonance.” Basically this means that it is difficult for a person to hold two very distinct cognitions, that is ideas, beliefs, or values. If we are trying to manage this we become emotionally uncomfortable, and our very natural response is to find a way to gain some relief from these inconsistent beliefs through a plan of self-justification, so that our world view can be accommodated and placed in balance. A common way for me to do this for many years was with smoking. On the one hand I said “smoking is a terrible thing, and its killing me”, and yet I also said, “I smoke a pack and a half a day.” And so I needed to find a way to justify my smoking or else feel immense guilt. So I reduced my anguish by saying it relieved stress and anxiety; I enjoyed it; It helped me be social; It kept my weight down, and so forth. Of course there is also the plan for quitting eventually, which I employed with some regularity. I used to say to Andrea, “I’ll quit when we have kids.” and she would give me the retort back, “And what do you call Joel?,” my now 28 year old son, who was then 14, but did not have his three younger siblings yet. I got caught in my own trap of self-justification!

Each one of us makes mistakes, but it is difficult for us to learn from them. Tavris and Aronson tells us that because we think of ourselves as smart, moral and right, it becomes darn near impossible for us to admit that we do things that are dumb, immoral or wrong. We see the circumstances or the other as the oaf, but not ourselves. When the milk spills the child will say the milk spilled. It just happened. It is not that I was careless or moved too fast, but it might be called the parents’ fault because we trusted them to pour it and they say, “you knew it was too heavy for me.” The examples are endless. And these are only the trivial and every day occurrences of self-justification. What about the very genesis of the phrase “mistakes were made” which was said in the context of international diplomatic decisions, when millions of lives were at stake. When it was suggested that Henry Kissinger was guilty of war crimes in Vietnam, he simply said “mistakes were made”, thus exonerating himself from the onus of personal responsibility, and placing the decision making in a kind of inevitable slide into oblivion that the administration was a victim of. What if we ever had a politician who could admit personal responsibility in decision making? We wouldn’t know what to do. But this example also shows us how we avoid taking responsibility for actions that turn out to be wrong or harmful. The authors depict George Bush as the poster boy for this refusal to recognize his own mistakes while clinging to a belief that has been widely discredited.

It is hard to believe that we might be wrong, and so we find ways to accommodate even devout beliefs. Years ago when I was researching my hometown of New Salem, I came across a religious sect known as the Millerites. Led by William Miller, they came to believe that the end of the world was coming in 1844. Using the Bible for prognosticating, they decided what the chosen day would be in October. Many of the followers sold their earthly goods, and on the appointed day outfitted themselves in white robes, seemingly appropriate attire for living aloft in the clouds. They proceeded to climb up the local hills, raised their arms heavenward and waited for God to lift them airborne into heaven. And waited. And waited. They were clearly wrong. Do you suppose they admitted the error of their ways? No way. When a date the following year failed to materialize, they simply put the date of the Second Coming into the context of being imminent. They didn’t know exactly when, but they had to always be on alert. Within twenty years they evolved into what we know today as the Seventh Day Adventists. And they are still waiting! Tavris and Aronson talk about a group in their book, who also predicted a date for the end of the world. When this date failed to occur, the group congratulated themselves on being so faithful. They decided that God had bestowed a miracle upon them, and therefore rewarded them and saved the world because of their steadfast belief. We are quick to affirm evidence that supports our view, and slow to believe evidence to the contrary. So if we believe terrorist acts are going to occur, but there is little evidence for them, we simply assert that the terrorists are being ever more clever in their ability to hide their nefarious activities from us.

We find ways to be comfortable with or to justify our beliefs. Let me say though that we need to do this or else we would go completely crazy with self-judging. Take the idea of being green, for instance. A person may be an avid recycler like me on the one hand, but also leave every light on in the house, also like me. I am trying to retrain myself to be more conscious of this, but you can drive yourself and others insane with being right about this with no sense of proportion. A little humility or humor are sometimes needed. Things can and do go wrong, and we can make terrible decisions. The pressure to have more income to add to our meager salaries may lead us to be duped by a sales scheme, and we end up losing out when the check we cashed turns out to be fake. How could I be so stupid we ask? None of us is perfect, and each is vulnerable to seeking self-justifcation for what we do. Ball players take steroids because it gives them what they believe is an extra edge physically, or allow them to return from injuries. Yet look at the difference between those like Jason Giambi of the Yankees who admitted his wrongdoing, and former Red Sox star Roger Clemens who attacks his former trainer for character defamation, lies repeatedly, and tries to unduly influence politicians all to save face. The public would surely have more sympathy if he were to admit his wrong doing and take responsibility for his actions, and yet he makes matters worse by refusing to admit his mistakes. I would say his genetic urge to self-justify has completely lost its monitor of control.

As a parent I notice this especially in child rearing, and find it a crucial aspect of character building. Here is what I experience when I may reprimand a child for an action, such as hitting another with a stick. First, there is an extended explanation of why it happened. We hear all the details that explain why something occurred, but never a simple acknowledgment that what was done was wrong. This is unfortunate, because we may never hear that the act perpetrated by the child was wrong regardless of what led up to it. What ever happened to walking away? Second, there is a justification for the action. The explanation is often portrayed in a manner so that the wrong action seems inevitable, such as the other person was taunting me or making fun of me, or the other hit me first, or that everybody was cheating, and so it somehow makes my acting in this way more acceptable. It is what happens when we see everybody turning right on a no turn on right sign, or everybody speeding, and we say everybody is doing it. Third, and finally, the child, after explaining the gory details, and justifying their actions may finally have to turn and tell the parent why they are wrong. You are not fair to me, or you give them more or favor them. We may tell our parent that they didn’t tell us in enough detail not to do something, or we didn’t know the consequences, and it is really their fault for not doing a better job of informing us. This happens for adults at work, too. We may cloak our own errors or inadequacies in blaming the employer. We say they didn’t give me enough hours or the proper training to do the job.

We all have this innate need to be right, and then this urge to finds ways to affirm that need. Sometimes we need someone else to help us see how we could be happier if we understood how we are working overtime to convince ourselves that this erroneous belief is good even as it is making us feel very unhappy and unappreciated. My Methodist colleague here in town showed me the way. What do we feel if we go through a painful, prolonged process of making a group work? I worked for years to ensure that the Watertown clergy group met, convincing myself that philosophically it was good to have an active clergy group where all the different faiths come together. While good in theory, the truth was that the group did little for the community which did not emanate from my energy, and I was on a different wavelength than most of the group, and thus spent a fair amount of time compromising my integrity. But because I put so much energy into the group, I distorted my perception of it in a positive way, so as to find good things about it, while ignoring the negative. While it is good to accentuate the positive, one also needs a slap in the face of reality sometimes, too. When the Methodist minister moved to town, he attended a couple of meetings of the group, and then he flatly stated, “this is a boring, worthless group.” Why do you bother? The answer was obvious. It was self-justification. I wanted to feel good about this group, even though it was moribund. In a sense I was happier with the group than I should have been because I put so much effort into it. It distorted my sense of reality because I so much wanted it to be a success. This can happen in relationships and jobs, too. When we look in front of our noses we may find that our need to be right about something is wrong, plus it is wasting a lot of our time and energy.

What this all means is that we should get a grip on reality. I should have seen that what I was doing was not making me happy. Sure there was a bit of doing my job, or doing my duty, but what are the limits of that when it comes down to affirming something that is useless or wrong, or wasting my time. This points to the larger truths about life that George Orwell discusses in “In Front of Your Nose.” We all believe things that we know to be untrue, and even when proven wrong, we still try to justify ourselves. From little clergy groups to big bad wars, this is a human predilection that is dangerous to our good spiritual health. Orwell tells us that there is much in modern democratic societies that end up being lies and distortions of truth, and we go along with them. “To see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle.” Orwell often came back to the theme of the flight from truth. He always said that he had an uncanny ability to face unpleasant truths. The human mind, he thought is capable of holding two contradictory truths, and that it can adjust its memory, and turn and twist the truth so it can become a believable reality. So we might wish to ask ourselves, what do I justify in my mind to make me comfortable, and how often do I ignore what is in front of my nose? We all want to sleep at night. No one wants to be overcome with regrets. It is better to look at our lives, and recall the philosopher from our story, how do we leave our names on the door?

I thought my wife had a profound idea in her sermon last week. She was speaking about Abu Ghraib, and the woman who appeared in many of the photos. The woman said that one of the men in her photos looked like Jesus Christ. This thought, Andrea said, meant that calling them Christlike compounded the injuries we already inflicted, especially because they were being tortured in ways that offend their religious sensibilities. Further, by comparing prisoners to Jesus, we obliterate who they are, and end up using images to give meaning to the torturers rather than to those who suffer, and by doing so we help ourselves cope with what we are seeing. We justify it by reporting it from our cultural Christian perspective. This is also true of cognitive dissonance. It can be a flight from truth when we use our beliefs to uphold prejudices and hypocrisies, but also those little things that so much want to be true, but simply are not. Often we feel as though we need to mold the truth to maintain our sanity. But when does the molding destroy our integrity? When do we have to stand up and say, This is a mistake, and I made it. I was wrong, and I will try my hardest not to do it again. I dream that my children will learn to be adults who admit their mistakes. I long for a President who would admit his/her mistakes. I long for a responsible faith that teaches us to own up to our mistakes – for I know it will lead to more open and honest relationships, and more compassion and forgiveness of each other as well, once we take that responsibility. I want to write my name on the door with honesty and integrity, while struggling mightily to shave down, at least a little, that log that is there.

Closing Words – Lao Tzu (ca. 500 B.C.E.)
A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.

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