First Parish of Watertown


“Ask For What You Want” by Mark W. Harris – December 13, 2009

“Ask For What You Want” by Mark W. Harris – December 13, 2009

“Ask For What You Want” – Mark W. Harris

December 13, 2009 – First Parish of Watertown

Call to Worship – “Channukah” by Lynn Ungar

Come down from the hills.
Declare the fighting done.
Be bold – declare victory,
even when the temple is wrecked.
and the tyrants have not retreated,
only coiled back like a snake
prepared to strike again.

Come down. Try to remember
a life gentled by daily acts
of domestic faith – – the pot
set to boil, the bed made up,
the table set in calm expectation
that when the sun sets
we will still be here.

Come down and settle.
Unlearn the years of hiding.
Light fires that can be seen for miles,
that dance and spark and warm
the frozen marrow. Set lamps
in the window. Declare your presence,
your loyalties, the truths
for which you do not expect to have to die.

It would take a miracle you say,
To carve such a solid life
out of the shell of fear.
I say you are the stuff
from which such miracles are made.

Sermon –

At Christmas time our boys always prepare a lists of items they hope to receive under the Christmas tree. I remember doing this myself every year as a child. My parents would ask me to write down every wish I had in a letter to Santa. I remember handing the list on to my parents with the hope that at least some of what I desired would be fulfilled by them, Santa, the Good Fairy or whomever might look favorably upon my requests. I don’t ever remember being especially disappointed with the major items I desired – books about the Civil War, toy soldier sets, baseball gloves and electric football games usually appeared when I asked. It was one instance where I was encouraged to express my wishes with the expectation that I would receive what I wanted. Ask and you shall receive. This was an idea I learned in church, too. After he cursed the fig tree, Jesus says that if you have faith anything can be accomplished. Then he goes on to say that “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive.” I was lucky as a child because I usually got what I wanted. Some children, because of financial circumstances may have lower expectations or none at all. Of course parents have limits. Children may ask for outrageously expensive items or too many gifts. We also knew that we were not going to get everything. Yet much of this gift buying obsession seems like selfish consumerism when our kids are surfing the web looking for the latest item, and we receive Macy’s Star Rewards cards in the mail telling us to “Be joyful, it’s that magical time of year . . .when you get everything you asked for (well, almost everything).” But do we actually get what we want, and do we really ask?

At first glance a sermon on asking for what you want might seem downright selfish, as it feels like positive thinking run amok. Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book called Bright Sided, on how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America. Ehrenreich’s feelings on this first surfaced when she had cancer and was turned off by the dogmatic application of having the right cheerful attitude to banish all doubt so she could cure herself with happy-think. Underlying this philosophy was the idea that you should get what is yours. There are megachurch pastors who exhort their parishioners to visualize wealth. telling them it could all be theirs. This has a corollary in those who seem to believe that if you just think right, your illness, or job loss, or marital dis-ease will instantly be cured. Ehrenreich says there is a major difference between this naive belief that you can scare away things with positive thinking, and getting a grip on reality, realize the difficult circumstance you might be in, and still have the determination that you can try your best to overcome these very real obstacles.

So when I suggest that you ask for what you want I don’t mean accumulating goods, but rather speaking up for yourself when you come to a time when you have always been silent or reluctant or afraid to speak up. I admired a little girl I heard at the Karate studio just the other day, who despite the fear of reprimand that showed on her face, responded to her mother’s prodding to use her words. She looked her mother right in the eye, and said, “I don’t want to wear the baby shoes any more.” Her mother thanked her for sharing what she was feeling, and promised no more baby shoes. Expect that you will speak up. When I suggest speaking up for yourself it means to not let someone tell you in words or actions that what you have to say is stupid or irrelevant, but that it is an important contribution to a conversation where everyone should be heard. The other day I was speaking to a frustrated colleague who was dealing with a doctor who was seemingly dismissing her chronic pain. I encouraged her to keep pushing, and make him listen. If you have a question about something that was denied you, or you don’t understand, then ask that question. Expect that people will listen to you. In courtroom dramas the people swear to speak the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Anything less is a lie. Expect to tell the truth. See things for what they are, and not a photocopy facsimile.

One of the classic examples of asking for what we want occurs in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Even if you didn’t read this tale in your childhood, you probably learned about Priscilla Mullins famous retort to John Alden’s romantic inquiry on behalf of his friend Miles. Priscilla says, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John ?” While the historical veracity of this is dubious, it became a way for Longfellow to express the feelings of the characters in this love triangle. John had a certain loyalty to his captain Miles who was brave but inarticulate, but John also has romantic feelings for the young Priscilla. Longfellow has Priscilla speak her mind in revealing what she wants. Can John do the same?

Miles Standish provides a good prototype for the man who cannot speak up for his own feelings. I know from my own experience that regardless of asking for Christmas gifts, or even expecting as the youngest child in the birth order that I would be loved and lavished with gifts without asking, I still failed to live by the need to speak up so that others would know what I was feeling or wanting. This youngest child felt that any negative feelings could not be expressed in my family, as it would cause conflict, and so my usual approach was to hide saying what I wanted or felt if it seemed it would in any way upset the emotional equilibrium we had established based on not talking about issues or pretending they didn’t exist. As I matured this attempt to keep everything on an even keel meant that I usually had great anxiety in situations where it seemed like conflict would arise. I could speak effectively if it was a prepared talk that I had control of, but any discussion meetings where I might have to speak extemporaneously made me extremely nervous. It is also been hard for me to express what I want in relationships. Many men do not ask for what they want because they cannot articulate it, but also because we expect our loved one to read our minds, and know exactly what we want to do or have, even though we have not said a word. So the first lesson in asking for what you want, is to actually say what it is. Speak your truth.

It is also hard to ask for what you want if you are poor or in need of assistance. It is not just a matter of pride, but rather that our culture has labeled those who have problems as failures. Bureaucracies are often set up to make it difficult for you to receive help. There is so much paperwork, and so many legal snafus that many people simply give up because it is complicated, embarrassing, and humiliating. If you saw the PBS showing of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit last year, you know what I mean. The gentle spirit of Amy Dorrit is threatened by her lifelong confinement in Marshalsea Prison. For years she cares for her father, the longest serving inmate who is serving a term for debt. A possibility of freedom appears in the person of Arthur Clennam who is trying to unravel a mystery in the wake of his father’s death. Yet we see the bureaucracy as an endless abyss of paper work where there is no intention to help unravel the injustice of this debt. Then Clennam’s exhaustive search for answers leads him into a tender romance with Amy, but neither one seems capable of admitting it, let along saying anything to the other about their true feelings of love. Finally they are both able to hear the words Arthur had previously uttered to her “Seize your chance of happiness.”

In the call to worship today Lynn Ungar reminds us of the Channukah story where the Macabees are exhorted to – “Come down from the hills -Unlearn the years of hiding.- Declare your presence, your loyalties, the truths for which you do not expect to have to die. To carve such a solid life out of the shell of fear.” What we take from this story is that after we have asked for what we want, we expect that others will hear us. The great poet Emily Dickinson expected Thomas Wentworth Higginson to hear what she was asking for. This was for him to come visit her in Amherst. While most of us know Dickinson’s verse, Higginson may be unknown to us. Their relationship is chronicled in the book White Heat by Brenda Wineapple. Higginson was an abolitionist Unitarian minister who gave unswerving financial support to John Brown, tried to rescue fugitive slave Anthony Burns from jail, and commanded the first black regiment in the Civil War. He became Dickinson’s confidant in 1862 when she wrote to him after seeing an article of his in the Atlantic Monthly offering advice to young writers. After she sent him some verse, he responded positively, and eventually she referred to him as her preceptor, even implying that he had saved her life.

Higginson found it difficult to be spontaneous with Dickinson. In the correspondence, he said he wanted his responses to be written perfectly. When he didn’t answer her right away, she persisted. She wanted him to come and visit so she could thank him for actually listening to her, and giving her a chance to be heard. If he honored this request, she would consider it a success, writing him that “Gratitude is the timid wealth of those who have nothing.” Since their correspondence began she said that “To thank you in person has been since then one of my few requests. The child that asks my flower ‘Will you,’ he says –’Will you’ and so to ask for what I want I know no other way.” While she was direct, the question was complicated for Higginson who did not want to antagonize his wife. She wanted to know why the insane were so attracted to her husband, and so it was hard to convince her to support a special trip to see a poet who she considered crazy. Yet Higginson saw the truth in what Dickinson wrote, and said that apostles of truth were often labeled fanatic or insane. He wondered if we silenced all those who we said had a crack in their brain if we would ever have a vision of the ideal.

In this relationship perhaps what was most significant is that he took the risk of actually listening to her, and not dismissing or rejecting her outright as unworthy or crazy. After her death, he help see that her poetry was published, and the rest of the story is eternal literary fame. She asked him to listen, and he said yes. So much of asking for what we want comes in the context of our relationships. Do we ask our spouses, our employers, our friends for what we need or do we keep silent, or even expect them to know without our verbalizing it? Being willing to ask for help when we need it, is difficult for many of us. Our Puritan consciousness seems to demand that we do it ourselves, and take care of our own problems when a visit or assistance or even a word of encouragement to seek help might make all the difference. Higginson did visit Dickinson twice in Amherst over the years while they maintained their correspondence. Because he listened to her, she trusted him, and continued to send him poems. He may not have realized what a great gift his response to her was. Being isolated and alone, he affirmed the one creative outlet of her life, and she was forever grateful for his listening. She once reminded him, “Of our greatest acts, we are ignorant.”

If we ask for what we want, if we truly listen to each other with open hearts, then we can expect to tell and hear the truth. When Higginson eventually published Dickinson he compared her to William Blake, and said, “The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind.” Asking for what we want may sound selfish, but it is really about having self knowledge and faithfully expressing that knowledge to others in direct truthful ways that build deeper bonds between us. Randy Paush, the author of The Last Lecture, who died young from a deadly cancer listed several lessons for living. One of these was “Ask for What You Want.” An example he listed was being at Disney World, and being desirous of where the driver sat on one of the rides. Rather than just being envious he asked if he and his son could sit there, too. The response was, “Sure.” Their wish came true. It was easy in fact. He mentions being anxious abut test results when we feel anxiety over a health concern. When the hospitals says it will take weeks, we can ask if we can get them sooner. Sometimes the answer is yes. As my parents used to say, “It never hurts to ask.” Once during my college years, I was in a record store, and saw a full size cardboard cutout of Mick Jagger promoting the Stones’ newest album. I wanted to have it to decorate my room. My request received an affirmative response. All it took was asking for what I wanted.

Need a friend to run an errand or listen to your concern? Want to return something? Just ask. We could probably think of many things we would like to do or places we would like to go, and we dismiss it as impossible because we never ask. We may assume , “oh my family would never go there, or we could never afford that, or that is just too crazy.” But we never know the answer unless we ask. If we want to climb that mountain or ride that ride, or go visit someone we owe our life to, we can just ask. The opportunity may not come again. It is an expression of the truthful longing or need we feel in our hearts. Higginson believed in women’s rights. He wanted Emily to be heard. Now the whole world hears her. In our reading today, you heard an excerpt from March by Geraldine Brooks. It is a fictionalized account of the father figure from the classic book Little Women. He is a chaplain in the Civil War. Mr. March is recalling all that he could not do, those he could not save, but his wife is reminding him of the effort. He acted on the truth. Even when we do so, there are many things that are hard to bear. In relationships we feel rejections. In jobs we can get fired, when we ask for what we want, and when we speak the truth. March’s wife reminds him that the effort is enough – that he acted upon his beliefs, and did not violate the truth he lived in his soul. That is why it is so important for us to ask for what we want, to tell our loved ones what we need, to find the truth together when we listen to one another. Then we know as Lynn Ungar implies, that we “are the stuff from which such miracles are made.”

Closing words – from James S. Curtis

I wish for you, all around you,
People who love easily and forgive quickly;
Whose eyes are stars when you are night;
Whose voices are trumpets when you are silence.
I wish for you
People about you who are gifts in themselves,
And whose presence in your life
Is an all year round present.

“A Godless Mystery?” by Mark W. Harris – November 15, 2009

“A Godless Mystery?” by Mark W. Harris – November 15, 2009

“A Godless Mystery?” – Mark W. Harris

November 15, 2009 – First Parish of Watertown

Call to Worship – adapted from Perry Como

I have seen a mother at a crib,
So I know what love is.

I have looked into the eyes of a child,
So I know what faith is

I have heard the wild bird’s sing,
So I know what freedom is.

I have seen a rainbow,
So I know what beauty is.

I have planted a tree
So I know what hope is

I have touched a helping hand,
So I know what kindness is.

I have seen a flower burst into bloom,
So I know what a mystery is.

I have lost a friend,
So I know what sorrow is.

I have felt the pounding of the sea,
So I know what power is.

I have seen a star decked sky,
So I know what the infinite is.

I have seen and felt all these things,
So I know what God is!

Reading by Edward Frost

We have heard that God
Is all the goodness
All the sweetness and light
And joy in the morning.

But God is the cries we do not hear,
The depth of hell the other suffers,
The darkness and the confusion.
Of the permanent night.

God may be the chaos –
Missed in our neatness and order
Who shuns the glistening temple
To walk in the gray repositories
Of twisted and divided souls.

To see such a God
Is to seek discomfort,
To walk in another’s broken shoes
Through the eye of an inner storm,
And be bent and twisted with him.

We have heard that God is love.
But God is the demand to love,
A demand unheeded,
Thus a God undiscovered.

Press through the grown over path
To another’s aloneness,
And there, with her,
The pain and the bearer of pain,
Is God.


Last week we heard two of our members address the theme of how their faith sustains them in difficult times. All of us have endured times when it seems like our lives are falling apart – our relationships, jobs, health all suffer. A traditional faith might inform you that God will sustain you at such times. Yet I think some people come to Unitarian Universalist churches because the God they learned about as children was suppose to prevent these bad things from happening, but then the inevitable vale of tears descended upon each of us, and God was absent. Yet it was not so much God’s absence that hurt us, but rather the interpretation of God that our childhood faith gave us. We end up with the impression that we are being punished by a guilt inducing, vengeful God. It is our fault we became sick or lost our job, and that we have committed some iniquity or are defective in God’s eyes. Christian Scientists for instance seem to teach that you become sick because you are not praying or living right, and then once you get right with God you will return to health. I had the experience many years ago when I was a student chaplain of sitting with a young mother whose baby had just died. Her own pastor, a conservative Baptist, came into the hospital room, raised his hand, and said, “It’s God will.” What person is going to go on believing in a God who kills off babies for his own pleasure as part of an inscrutable plan?. In an imperfect world, with imperfect people, mistakes are made, tragedies happen, and sometimes we long for answers to what it all means.

We not only have the issues we struggle with in our daily lives, but there is also a world beyond these walls that has been filled in recent years with economic chaos, unending wars, global warming, and the ever present threat of terrorists. I don’t need to tell you that we are living in tumultuous times. Just this week, a military doctor gunned down twelve people and wounded more than two dozen more on a military base in Texas, shouting the name of God as he did so. His Muslim faith fueled the already present fears that an entire religion is to blame for inducing terrorist activities. We see polarization between Jews and Palestinians, the Western world and the Muslim world, and between Republicans and Democrats at home. It seems like a world of extremists. Not too many years ago each of these larger political conflicts found representation in a rise of radical fundamentalism within its ranks. The scholar Karen Armstrong told us about a Battle for God, with each side claiming that its dogma was the true one with little room left for understanding the other side. Right wing Jews, Muslim terrorists, and evangelical Christians left us believing that the world would never know peace and justice.

The rise of worldwide fundamentalism has made more than one liberal a little nervous about the direction religion is going. In recent decades evangelical faiths have grown, while more moderate approaches have stagnated. One development in these times of political polarization is that fundamentalism has been countered by a resurgence of atheism. This atheist coming out brought us authors Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and especially Richard Dawkins, who wrote The God Delusion. I even found the Quotable Atheist stuffed in my stocking last Christmas. Jolly old Santa was pushing atheism, too. The other day I was riding the Red Line going to a meeting in Boston, and I noticed a placard inside the train with the words: “Good without God? Millions of Americans are.” An article in the Boston Globe said that these ads were sponsored by the Boston Area Coalition of Reason, who were trying to raise awareness that God is a myth. Last Sunday, Martha Scott read one of the letters that was written in response to the article, which stated that our UU churches welcome people of all theological stripes, including atheists. It is true that atheists, agnostics, theists, Christians and Buddhists can all find community in UU congregations that number among our principles the free search for truth.

Yet I have found many of these newly popular atheists to be fundamentalists in their own right. They are reacting against an image of God, that many of us rejected as children, that of an all powerful, supernatural monarch who approves of us when we are good, and punishes us when we are bad, and will broker deals with us in exchange for unending homage and allegiance. Since that kind of God does not exist, they say, there is no God. Yet many people who still believe in God, don’t believe in that kind of God either. Dawkins says that he is “against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.” Another atheist group that sponsored some ads in the midwest said that religion “hardens hearts and enslaves the mind.” This point of view foolishly reasserts an intransigent science vs. religion argument where only one can be a winner. Understanding the world and trying to make it better have always been at the forefront of our Unitarian Universalists faith, but Dawkins seems to want to summarily dismiss all religions as stupid, anti-intellectual mythic structures that teach people things that just ain’t so. It replicates the polarization we see in politics into the religious world.

Into this mix of fundamentalists vs. atheists comes two new books. One of these, The Case for God by Karen Armstrong, was recently on the best seller list. One reviewer states that Armstrong says religion is properly a matter of practice, that is the prayers and rituals, or the experience of the faith, and the worst thing imaginable is the folly of intellectualizing the practice. This makes it into a matter of belief, argument, and ultimately dogma. The problem with liberal religion is that we have frequently intellectualized the rejection of belief. We also have a hard time formulating exactly what our practices are because we don’t sprinkle holy water or eat wafers. What might be most helpful is if we remembered that the experience of Unitarian Universalism is the embodiment of it in our lives. Our whole faith is practice. When it comes to God, Armstrong says that nothing about God can be put into words. She recommends silence, and says words such as “God” have to be seen as symbols, not names, but any word will always be inadequate, or metaphorical. The mystery at the heart of religious practice is ineffable, unapproachable by reason and by language. Silence is its truest expression.

We can certainly appreciate this, when for many of us, the most reverent times in our lives are when we sit in silence. When that Baptist minister interrupted me as a young student minister, I was sitting holding the hand of the mother who had just suffered an unbearable loss. There are no words to comfort or to provide assurance at that time. It is merely time for a silent witness that the event has occurred, and that the other person is not alone. So, too when a parent stands by the side of a crib and watches their sleeping infant, or when we look out at a majestic mountain scene or feel the surf crashing against the rocks, there may be an ineffable feeling of oneness with another person or with the creation in that silent moment. To be reverent like this is to be more fully human.

Many years ago a family called me up and asked me to come to their house when their father died. I went upstairs and found myself alone with the deceased. Perhaps the family was acting out a ritual where they expected the clergyperson to perform some kind of last rites, but my training had certainly not prepared me for that. Instead all I could do was sit with the body, touch his leg, and try in my awkward way to send him him off to the great silent unknown. So in a sense I had prayed for him, giving him my own version of last rites by being present, not with prepared words, but with the witness of my life. That is really all that we can do. God is like the pain described in the reading by Edward Frost. It is the cry or the confusion in suffering, or the demand to respond to another in love, and say, yes I will be present with you even as you bear this pain. Former UUA president Paul Carnes once wrote, “we may not know what God is, but we can know what it means to be human. This we can each do. For as Carnes said, we are the earth speaking, . . . the Universe grown conscious of itself. . . We are the force that creates and destroys even the gods we worship.”

Is it us who has created God? The biologist Robert Wright writes in his book, The Evolution of God, that he is not sure there is a God, but he is sure that our idea of God has progressed in a humane fashion so that the increasing goodness of God reflects the increasing goodness of our species. In the midst of all this polarization I have talked about, he gives us some degree of hope that the world and us can be saved. Echoing the words of that great Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker, Wright believes that while the moral arc of the universe is long, it does bend toward justice. Wright would be the first to admit that lots of violence has been done in God’s name, but the evidence is also clear that we have moved as a species in a positive moral direction over time. How people interpret the texts of their faiths, and the moral choices they make help determine the shape of the God they worship. Over time technological growth and the reality of greater global interconnections have moved us toward more mutually beneficial relationships. Simply speaking, the God we are envisioning now has evolved from one who people pray to to bring in a good catch by our fishermen, or who protects our little tribe from annihilation by the tribe over the hill. Larger and larger expanses of people have been protected, or at least tolerated by one God. Our new world has a God that embraces many faiths, and represents greater justice for all. Even as there are set backs, such as when a state like Maine votes down equal marriage, we also know that the world is marching toward a vision of oneness not so different from that first envisioned by our Universalist forebears.

Evidence of human progress can be found in familiar Biblical passages. Take the story of Jonah from the Hebrew scriptures. Jonah as most of you recall was the fellow who was swallowed by the whale. In the story God sends Jonah to reprove the people of Nineveh for their wicked ways. Jonah does not want to do this, and the big fish enters the story. After this dark night in the belly, Jonah decides he better obey, and he goes to warn the Ninevites. And what do they do? Surprisingly, they repent. What’s interesting here is that traditionally they had been an enemy of Israel. Remember in the old days God leads people around and massacres their enemies. Now people are discovering that there is a lot of waste and inefficiency in fighting all the time. So instead of killing everybody, we tax them instead and allow them to live peacefully within our nation. God becomes nicer, too. And we see that with Jonah’s story. As you heard in the reading, Jonah is revolted by the idea of forgiving them. But the book ends with God explaining that he should be concerned about them, because they don’t know right from wrong, and we must teach them to be better. Now God doesn’t just get rid of enemies, or condemn them for sinfulness, but instead God can be understanding and show compassion towards others, even the enemy.

Even if we agree that the moral circle of humanity has been enlarged, is that evidence that God exists? While Wright believes that this growth of moral imagination reflects that there is a higher purpose to life or a transcendent moral order, it is not the creation of a divinely perfect being. We have moved in fits and starts, imperfectly and painfully just as human progress always is, but nevertheless, on a sure and steady pace of moral growth. Are we growing toward becoming a more morally sensitive species? Do the Gods we create grow with us? What Wright would say is that it does not matter whether God implants something in us that makes our tolerance and understanding and compassion increase over time, or if we develop it ourselves. It is a universal principle that we are meant to embrace with our lives and our cultures. It is not the all powerful God who makes one nation better than another, nor is it the personal God who will answer individual prayers for healing, but it is a God in us that is moving us toward creating a better society, one that makes us be more just and equitable in our dealings with our neighbors.

In her work about God, Karen Armstrong finds meaning in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He said religion was an expression of the forms of life, not the expression of certain propositions. So religious expression is found in enacting certain practices such as gathering food for the hungry, or singing in the choir. We help others. We find friendship with others. He says what matters is what satisfies us. So perhaps lighting a candle may not have any actual affect on the person we are lighting a candle for, but it does make us feel better to remember them, and think about them, and it also alerts others to our concern. They then can care for us or affirm us. This is why the practice of some of our childhood faith might still bring meaning. We may not actual believe it, but it feels good to do it. Saying the word God may still hold meaning for some of us, but not for others. We cannot say for sure if God exists, but we can know an immense feeling of oneness in the silence. It may connect us to what we feel is a moral dimension to life that is growing in us and in the world. It may help us be more loving people. It may satisfy us.

An atheist group in England also ran a series of ads to celebrate the newly found resurgence of atheism. The British ad said: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” This reminds me of the series of attacks that were leveled upon Universalists more than 200 years ago when it was struggling to survive. Universalists were reacting against Calvinism which declared that God saved some to eternal bliss, but condemned most to hell. In their reading of the Bible, Universalists discovered a loving god who found all people deserving of salvation. Yet the opponents of Universalism said it would lead to all manner of licentiousness, because if all were saved, then there was no incentive to be good. The threat of hell was what made people good. So murderers, adulterers and thieves were often identified in the press as likely to be Universalists. Universalists argued that the moral principle of life is not a condemning God who threatens us, but rather a loving God who wants us to be happy. The word salvation comes from a Latin word meaning to stay intact, to remain whole, to be in good health. Universalists taught how salvation was to be achieved; how we can remain whole. Personally, we must do what makes us happy. Hosea Ballou, the great preacher of Universalism said, “The main object in all that we do is happiness.” I will always remember the words of my father as he laid on his death bed. He simply stated, “I’ve really enjoyed my life.” How can we appreciate our blessings? I recall the line in the novel the Color Purple, where one of the characters says God becomes angry when we humans don’t notice the color purple in a blooming field of flowers. The God in us truly emerges when when we do notice the beauty, live our lives to the fullest, engage with others, and care deeply enough to build a better world

Ballou also said that our happiness is tied up with the happiness of others. Salvation is not based on individual merit, or how good you are. Instead, salvation is a social salvation, or as Ballou said, our happiness is connected with the happiness of our fellows. We are bound up together, and this is clearly what our members said sustained them last week. Some would suggest that the divine appears through our willingness to be more engaged with others. Universalism teaches that the one human family is drawn up into God’s love, in one moral community. We will all be the better for it, and will be happy, when we comprehend the necessity of cooperation and compassion in building the moral community. Wright, in his new book, says we are moving toward an understanding of this great moral truth. For some it may be a nameless mystery, and for others it may be the source of the moral truth for all life, and whether or not we use the word God, or even find it meaningful, may we together create a community where we act on our longings to be in deeper relationship with others, and ultimately bring salvation to all.

Closing Words – from Mary E. Hunt

In the beginning God enjoyed herself.
She laughed out loud and laughed some more because it was good.
She sat back and smiled.
She clapped her hands in glee and imagined her sisters dancing.
She did nothing but enjoy and it was everything.

God knew that there was work to be done —
a world to create, people to form and a whole creation to plan.
She even glimpsed the fact that creation would include meetings and that there would be injustices to right, and still she laughed, knowing that in the end it was all about pleasure.

She explained to no one in particular that enjoyment is what she intended life to be about: pleasure is the first principle.
She knew that other would be divinities stressed work and obligation.

She reasoned quite astutely that if joy for all were the goal, then everyone could rest and relax, at least some of the time. Just thinking about this made her grin.

Light years later, when creation came into being and people began to toil and sweat their way, she noticed that her first principle had been replaced by work and pain.
So, she se t a reminder of her legacy.
She gave it several names: relaxation, fun, recreation, leisure, play. some thought it was a vestige of days gone by.
But God knew that it was the real thing.
She called it salvation.

“Mechanical Me” by Mark W. Harris – October 25, 2009

“Mechanical Me” by Mark W. Harris – October 25, 2009

“Mechanical Me” by Mark W. Harris

October 25, 2009 –First Parish of Watertown, MA

Call to Worship – from Edward Hays (adapted)

O sacred season of autumn, be my teacher,
For I wish to learn the virtue of contentment.
As I gaze upon your full colored beauty,
Help me to rest in your amber riches.

You are the season of retirement,
Of full barns and harvested fields.
The cycle of growth has ceased,
And the busy work of giving life
Is now completed.
I sense in you no regrets; you’ve lived a full life.

I live in a society that is ever restless.
Always eager for more mountains to climb,
Seeking happiness through more and more possessions. . .
I am seldom at peace with what I have.
Teach me to take stock of what I have given and received,
May I know that it is enough,
That my striving can cease in the abundance of the world’s gifts.
May I know the contentment that allows my energy to come to full flower, that I use both what is close at hand, and less taxing on the resources of earth.

As you, O Autumn, take pleasure in your great bounty,
Let me also take delight in the abundance of the simple things in life, and find contentment in this autumn day.

Reading – “Masks” by Lynn Ungar

What will you wear for Halloween?
The trees are changing faces, and the
Rough chins of chestnut burrs
grimace and break to show their
sleek brown centers. The hills
have lost their mask of green and grain,
settled into a firmer geometry
of uncolored line and curve.

Which face will you say is true –
the luminous trees or the branches underneath?
The green husks of walnuts, the shell within,
or the nut curled intimately inside,
sheltered like a brain within its casing?

Be careful with what you know,
with what you think you see.
Moment by moment faces shift,
masks uplift and fall again, repainted
to a different scene. It means
the cynics say, there is no truth,
no constant to give order to the great equation

Meanwhile, the trees, leaf by leaf,
Are telling stories inevitably true:
Green. Gold. Vermillion. Brown.
The lace of veins remaining
as each cell returns to soil.


Andrea’s father used to refer to himself as a car. That could lead to some major role confusion. In any case, he used to refer to the shower as the car wash, where he would be cleansed of all the grease and grime that accumulated on his body from being on the road. Then he talked about the hospital as the body shop where he would go in order to be repaired when he broke down.. When he went to the doctor for a checkup, yes, you guessed it, it became a tune up for his body, the machine. I have known other men who used this same metaphor. Some of the ones I have known would eat and drink whatever they wanted, avoid exercise and sleep, and expect they would stay healthy forever, and if they did become sick, the assumption was the doctor could repair this machine they inhabited. Few of them took care of the gift they had been given very well. Rather than a temple, they treated their body more like a engine that could be worked ceaselessly until it broke down, and then they assumed any malfunction or broken part could be fixed.

Now we are used to hip replacements and mechanical hearts and the like. After I had my ankle repaired in the wake of being hit by the ocean wave many years ago, Andrea used to refer to it as my bionic ankle. This has been a recurring theme in the movies and literature. Those of us who were fans of Star Wars were relieved and grateful that Darth Vader still contained an inch of humanity in his otherwise mechanical body, and was able to feel his love for his son Luke, and destroy the evil emperor. Recently my boys wanted us to take them to see the movie “9,” which it turns out is a grim little picture about nine robots created from the soul of a scientist, who had helped create the ultimate destructive device that had brought on Armageddon. These 9 are the remnants of human compassion that remains on earth. Many of you have probably seen “Wall-E,” a wonderful film about a little robot who collects garbage in a waste covered earth that looks like Armageddon as a result of mass consumerism. Wall-E falls in love with another robot named Eve, and eventually brings a little green back to a world that has been completely standardized and mechanized, as we see people with serious physical neglect of their bodies; there is no muscle left, and they plainly suffer from terrible bone loss. Wall-E follows Eve into outer space on an adventure that transforms the future.

Most of us who are in this sanctuary today know that we have to transform the future, too. Our Green Sanctuary program has the intent of educating us about the dangers of global warming, but also leading us into news ways of living in harmony with the earth. It is not always easy to change our ways of doing things in our daily lives. Years ago I used paper towels for every conceivable household chore, always dried my clothes in a dryer, and left on every light in the house. I grew up in a house where the thermostat was always set at 72 degrees. Slowly I began to use rags for cleanups, turn out lights in my house, and bought a clothes line for the parsonage. But it is easy to fall back into old ways. Gathering a wet wash, carrying it outside and hanging it requires perseverance and commitment. I remember my mother trying to cope with frozen sheets in winter. We need to remind ourselves constantly that the use of less fossil fuels and less electricity will help reduce our carbon footprint, and ensure a future for our children. It is a big task. There are things we can change about the ways we consume, and the ways we live.

What inspired this topic today cuts at the heart of my faith because it emanated from the denominational forms that our student minister has to fill out to prove his worthiness to the UUA ministerial fellowship committee. It is a lot of little boxes that need to be filled in. He needed an outlined plan to predict how he would spend every hour of the week, what he would do in those hours, and the resources he would use to learn all that he needed to learn so that he could then check off the little box that he was now an accomplished minister. It made ministry, that profession that in theory should be built upon relationships between people, and how they together can create a more humane, loving world where people take care of each other, into a defined set of knowable facts that the student could glean from the minister and congregation, his informational resources. It was all very bureaucratized and standardized, while at the same time the denomination was calling for multicultural diversity and more spiritual disciplines, things that you would think would make us reach out to others more. I felt there was a disconnect between making a minister proving his worth by fulfilling a systematic arrangement of defined knowledge with the desire for spiritual depth. The systemic void was that the exacting standards and forms lacked any heart. It was the mechanical minister come to life.

The mechanical me was right out of the Wizard of Oz’s Tin Woodman. You may remember from the movie, that he was a former human who the wicked witch had cast a spell upon, and made into a machine. He was the juxtaposition to the scarecrow who needed a brain. The tin man needed a heart. He also needed constant oiling in order to keep his parts in working order. His friends had to take care of him or he would rust. One of the best parts of the film for me is when he is saying goodbye to Dorothy, and she says, Oh, don’t cry! You’ll rust so dreadfully. Here’s your oil can. He responds: “Now I know I’ve got a heart, ’cause it’s breaking.” His breaking heart, of course, comes from the love he feels for Dorothy, not from any mechanical clock that counts the ticking in his chest.

My concern that came from those ministerial forms is that current obsession with the mechanization of truth with measured results leaves us with no heart, or actual relationships become secondary. You may remember that in the movement known as the Enlightenment, thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin envisioned a God who was like a machine. In fact, he was a clock maker who set the world in motion, and then left it to run on its own. Thinking of life as mechanical has been a theme throughout our history, but it has also been a target of our fears. Historian Jill Lepore makes this relevant in a recent issue of the New Yorker, where she writes about scientific management, which became another name for efficiency in the last century. She says it started as a way to improve the ways in which we work, but it has somehow become a way of life for us. If we have everything organized and standardized and placed into the boxes of correct information, then everything will function like clock work, and we will see results. We must see results. In our time starved culture, Lepore suggests that many of us have made ourselves into these managed machines. We manage our children’s lives with schedules, and we give them standardized tests to prove that they meet the correct educational standards. We are perfectly scheduled to multitask and waste no motions in proving our effectiveness as efficient human beings. The sad thing about all this efficiency is in that the last two decades of the 20th century we added a whole extra month’s time of work. We are exhausted from our competitiveness. We are exhausted from our over scheduled, over worked lives. We are the machine whose relationships suffer, and we end up feeling like we have no heart.

Exhaust might be the word that characterizes this dilemma. We are exhausted because in the rhythms of life we give ourselves no chance to rest from our labors. Going back to hanging out clothes to dry might help with this process because we would not always throw them into the efficient little machine, but would green up our laundry, and perhaps even enlist a child or spouse to help us, and have a conversation in the midst of it all. The standard forms assume that there is this private little cachet of knowledge, and if Duffy meets all those standards then he will become just the right kind of minister. Yet congregations vary, needs vary, people are multicultural, and will be increasingly so. So wouldn’t we want less boxes, and more relationships to fit the variety of needs we have? Our Unitarian Universalist faith is built on the belief that trying to convey one universal truth that can be applied to everyone is erroneous. This is why the exclusive nature of Christianity was left behind with other dogmas, so that we could see that true faith emanates from how we treat one another, and what kind of loving communities we create in our midst.

Truth, as Parker Palmer says, is what happens between us, and not merely from what I convey to you. It is a conversation. We must be alarmed that all of the machines operated by us have polluted the world. It is exhaust that causes ecological dread. We need new applications of machines to help us save the world from ecological disaster, but we also have to be cautious that we are not literally buying into a green consumerism. We also need to remember that we are not machines that need to be driven harder and faster so that we are exhausted. We have not been ecological with ourselves. I cannot convey to Duffy the truth about ministry so he can check it off in the box. Ministry and church are not results driven. He will find the truth about his ministry and ours in dialogue with, in what kind of person he is in relationship with others. Our climate initiative is not meant for you to prove how green you are in competition with others. We all must do the best we can, not in isolation, but in a dialogue of support and helpfulness. How can we together make a difference? Now is the time for us to take time to walk more, hang out clothes more, garden more, and come back to heal the earth. Now is also the time to walk more, hang out clothes more, and garden more with each other that we might heal ourselves.

Closing Words – from Wendell Berry
Within the circles of our lives
We dance the circle of the years,
the circle of the seasons
within the circles of the years,
the cycles of the moon
within the circles of the seasons,
the circles of our reasons
within the cycles of the moon.

Again, again we come and go,
changed, changing. Hands
join, unjoin in love and fear,
grief and joy. The circles turn,
each giving into each, into all.
Only music keeps us here,

Each by all the others held.
In the hold of hands and eyes
We turn in pairs, that joining
joining each to all again.

And then we turn aside, alone,
out of the sunlight gone
into the darker circles of return.

“Who Do I Belong To?” by Mark W. Harris – September 20, 2009

“Who Do I Belong To?” by Mark W. Harris – September 20, 2009

Who Do I Belong To? By Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – September 20, 2009

Call to Worship – from Margaret Keip

As surely as we belong to the universe
We belong together.
We join here in community to overcome our feeling of being alone,
To reconnect,
To know ourselves to be at home,
Here on earth, under the stars,
Linked with each other.

Reading – “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell

I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock n roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
And try and get my soul free

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog
In something turning

Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who l am
But life is for learning

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song
And celebration

And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust
million-year-old carbon
We are golden
caught in the devils bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden


I am a member of Woodstock Nation. Forty years ago in the summer of 1969, eight high school friends wedged themselves in a Chevy van, and headed west for a remote location in New York State, near the fabled hometown of Bob Dylan. Yet Woodstock, New York had rejected the proposed festival, as did another town, but finally a dairy farmer named Max Yasgur made arrangements for the giant concert on his amphitheatre like cow field in Bethel, New York. My mother was probably a little naïve about what her youngest child was getting into, and yet so was I. For one weekend this remote pasture was Mecca, as 500,000 youth went on a rock pilgrimage to it. It became a logistical disaster. As the MC announced at one point, “the New York State Thruway is closed, man.” It is true that my little entourage ran into a traffic jam of immense proportions. We ended up parking eight miles from festival, and then walking. We tried to shop for food in one town we passed through, but the grocery shelves looked liked a plague of locusts had descended. Then it began raining, and it never stopped. We arrived in the downpour to hear the beautiful strains of Joan Baez’ voice, then slept fitfully in the rain, only to awake to a massive mud pie. One of the books recently issued to commemorate the 40th anniversary said 30,000 to 80,000 sleeping bags were left behind because they were so mud encased, they were too heavy to carry. One of those was mine.

On Saturday we made our way to a location half way up the hill, staked out our spot, and sat. There was little food available for sale, which is probably good, because there were no bathrooms either. Well, let me clarify, there were a few port-u-johns, but by Saturday afternoon, this city of half a million had ended their functional usefulness. And the smell. Let’s just say I avoided portable toilets for years to come, because they all conjured up images of Woodstock. The cornfields had to suffice. I was being very green. And the music, of course was mostly, spectacular. We danced all night long. Ever since, people have tried to comment on the meaning of it all. The mud faded from memory, and people instead have remembered the tremendous sense of community and harmony fostered there. It is true that faced with a dearth of material comforts, we did not take it out on each other, instead we took care of each other. For some it defined the 1960’s as a call for peace making in response to wars and violence, a time of unity and harmony in response to racial hatred and divisiveness. Many of us sang about a generation gap, saying hope I die before I get old, but now most of us are aging, and know our children will be the inheritors of Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Abbie Hoffman spoke at the trial of the Chicago Eight, he told the judge his place of residence was Woodstock Nation. He represented a nation of alienated young people who rejected competition in favor of cooperation, and stated that there were better means of exchange than property or money. This longhaired rebelliousness against the establishment gave me a sense of identity for a long time. Many of us belong to our times. We identify with a particular cultural or political expression, and it gives us a sense of rootedness where our beliefs about life and our vision for the world are grounded. For me, this sense of belonging to a sub culture which wanted the world to allocate its resources more fairly and treat our neighbors more equally, had a dramatic effect on my choice of profession and on my political and economic perspective on the world. We belong to those parts of our life, which bring us meaning. They are the things we are most connected to. It may mean family, or friends, or church, or town, or nation. Whatever it is we feel we belong to, it keeps us from being adrift, and provides meaning and focus for our lives.

Finding a sense of rootedness in times of change and upheaval becomes crucial for our well- being. The major stories of the Bible reminds us that life is marked by dramatic traumas that often make us leave the home and land, and even the family we love, and we are forced to create a sense of belonging elsewhere. Abraham is told to “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” Out of this a new community, or Israel, will emerge. But more importantly, the covenant with God is not just for Abraham, but also is meant as a relationship with other people and cultures. This call to separate is so that he can learn, in that new place that the blessing of belonging to God is for all of us.

In a way I found my sense of belonging in Woodstock Nation because I saw its peaceful, cooperative ways as the embodiment of what the Hebrew prophets might have called God’s blessing in the world. We should all belong to this kind of loving, caring community. But how far did the caring extend? Like most things in life that provide a sense of belonging, it had a restricted focus. I found my anti-establishment, liberal, hippie group meaningful, but we also had our enemies, and one of the major targets of that enmity was the police. From the experience of arresting demonstrators, the police were an embodiment of an oppressive establishment. While this youthful suspicion and distrust of police mellowed over the years for me, it never completely left my consciousness, and I have tried to keep the police at a distance because a part of me still saw them as authoritarian, control freaks who could morph into the enforcers of a military state.

This had changed as a result of my work with the World in Watertown, Watertown’s human rights group. Over the years we had partnered with the police on a number of programs, and I had found there was certainly room for moderation of my rigid view of the thin, blue line. This especially changed for me this summer over the flag incident. As most of you know vandals first stole our rainbow flag, and then burned it twice, so that on the second occasion, it was completely destroyed. For some liberals, like myself, who might at first suspect that the police would be completely homophobic, and dismissive of the burning of our flag, I was wrong. Instead they were ever present, helpful and courteous to me. They offered additional patrols and increased surveillance. Moreover they were a like a supplementary organizing team for the rally we had in Watertown Square, and subsequently stopped traffic for our march back to the church. To witness their support when someone was trying to subvert our message was heartening. I suspect that having an enemy to project our dislike or upon helps establish a sense of belonging, but ultimately it destroys our sense of trust. And if there is some level of distrust then it mars our feeling of belonging in a community. In my comments I tried to imply that our welcome of the bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender communities to First Parish was an extension of Watertown’s historic efforts to welcome immigrant communities, so that everyone would feel a sense of belonging here.

We also know that those things we once felt like we belonged to such as voluntary organizations or schools can betray our sense of trust because no human institution is perfect. This happens to many of us with our families. In the bestselling novel Olive Kittridge, Olive and Henry’s son moves west, and after he is divorced announces that he plans on staying there in his new home. Henry is sure that the Maine coastline is where he belongs. Then Olive and Henry try to prove to themselves the power of the sense of belonging the family heritage has upon their son. “They traced their genealogy, driving to Augusta to work in the library there, going to old graveyards miles away. Henry’s ancestors went back eight generations; Olive’s went back ten. Her first ancestor had come from Scotland, was indentured for seven years of labor, and then started out on his own. The Scottish were scrappy, tough, surviving things you’d never dream of – scalpings, freezing winters with no food, barns burning from a lightning flash, children dying left and right. But they persevered, and Olive would be temporarily lightened in spirit as she read about this.” Yet, for some reason, their only offspring no longer felt like he belonged on the east coast. Times and circumstances change, or perhaps we are betrayed by those we once trusted, but in any case, our new lives no longer afford us the opportunity or perhaps even the inclination to feel like we belong to this past. Often a death changes that sense of belonging. Perhaps the parents held the family together and gave it its sense of belonging, and once they were gone, the glue or locus of shared meaning is gone. I saw this in the movie “Summer Hours” which I watched a few months ago. It is French film where the children must make a family decision to sell the old country house that had generated many meaningful moments for them, but their obligations make it impossible for them to give the time or energy to relive that former sense of belonging together there as a family.

Whether we stay with the sense of family or group rootedness we have nurtured in our lives or not, we know we feel a need to cultivate a source of steadiness and strength. While the Bible stories provide an archetype of finding a sense of belonging in a new place after being uprooted, America has also embodied this in its mythic stories of moving west and finding freedom here. This summer Andrea told the story of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s family. These Welsh farmers and many of their family members all migrated to Spring Green, Wisconsin. They had also been Unitarians back in Wales. No matter what happened to family members, there was still a family sense of belonging to the place, or the land in Wisconsin. There was something about the place and the people that made Wright feel at home. While this combined a family legacy of both faith and land, others must create this sense of belonging either through new connections or new family relations. I certainly feel this with the land in Maine. There is belonging to the ocean, to the rocks, and to Andrea’s family that was once rooted there. There is the nurturing memory of going to college there. There is a song by Bryan Adams, which embodies this about places where we feel this sense of connectedness. “I hear the wind across the plain, A sound so strong – that calls my name. It’s wild like the river – it’s warm like the sun, It’s here – this is where I belong.” Perhaps it is the sheer beauty of a spot; perhaps it is the connection of trust we feel for the people. We just kmow it. This is where I belong.

Religiously speaking, most Unitarian Universalists are unique because we choose our faith, rather than inherit it. Perhaps we chose the Unitarian Universalist church because we did not feel like we belonged in the church of our parents. We found the guilt free church – no sin. It was the church that made sense – no irrational ideas about God or Jesus. It was the accepting church – because it had a tradition that God loves everybody equally, and wants us to be happy. It was the church that asked us to live our religion rather than talk about it – because it was a open friendly community where members are encouraged to help build a just world. So we walk through the doors, and see the compassionate, like minded people, and the hip minister who went to Woodstock, and we say, this is where I belong.

Long ago in ancient times, people belonged to tribes, and it was difficult for the people then to distinguish themselves from the tribe because they did not know where one began and the other ended. It represented their truth about life, and there was no individual course of action outside of the tribe, or you were lost. While that time has long ago receded into history, and if anything, we liberals often represent the extreme opposite as advocates of freedom and individualism, there is still that longing in us for connection, and so we seek places of belonging like this church because we need them. Here we are reminded that there is a timelessness to the creation and to life, and a longing to belong to some stream that is part of that whole. My wife Andrea was dedicated in this faith of ours, and despite our tendency to focus on those who are come outers from other faiths, and our tendency to let personalism and individualism run amok, while fearing any authority, she insists that no bureaucratic failings, will take her faith away from her. This is where she belongs.

Who do you belong to? It is hard to feel a sense of belonging because our culture teaches us self-sufficient individualism. In June, Jill Lepore wrote an article in The New Yorker about parenthood. A century ago most people lived with children around them all the time. Aunts and uncles lived around babies, and older children, too. I was startled by her statement that a not uncommon experience today is a mother, who upon first holding her newborn, realizes that this is the first baby she has ever held. Once upon a time everyone knew how to take care of a baby. Jobs are made for people who aren’t taking care of children. Fewer of us are around children, and we don’t understand how hard a job it is raising them, and how important it is. Let our first day of church school remind us of the importance of a community where all ages belong. And let it also be a reminder that the church is one place where we all belong to each other.

This may be at the heart of who feels a sense of belonging, and the importance of our own liberal religious message. Right now there are many strangers n the land, as all of western society is being transformed by the presence of Islam. Years ago when we were in London, I remember doing a double take when I saw a woman in a full burqa. Now Muslim women are asserting their right to wear them in Paris. How do we keep the world we feel we belong to whole, while there are increasing waves of immigration that are transforming things? These are not easy questions. Which has primacy, the nation we live in and call home, or the religion that holds our hearts and minds? We live on an edge, and it is not easy feeling that border because it challenges us to change and embrace something greater to belong to.

Yet that has probably always been at the heart of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. Last Saturday I took part in Charter Day, a special historical celebration marking the naming of Watertown, Boston and Dorchester in 1630. After I gave a talk at the library, we came here to First Parish for the first leg of a walking tour. On Friday, I received an email from a Watertown resident who had attended the event. He wanted to know why we did not display an American flag, and yet we made a big deal out of the burning of a gay flag. He wanted to know what was wrong with us. I have not had a chance to write back. But I may well say the rainbow flag represents not gay rights, but is symbolic of universal rights, and that a flag representing all people or the earth is probably more appropriate then an American flag. Most of us love America and what it stands for, but what we understand theologically is that there is a deeper loyalty than town, nation or even specific religion, and it is our loyalty to the earth, and to humanity as a whole.

My rebellious Woodstock days gave me a vision for the world, but I am afraid I saw it as a rebel who found pockets of belonging in politics, single parenting and even in the way I perceived Unitarian Universalism, as an exclusive enclave for individual expression, but hardly a community that had a true vision for healing the world. It was a bunch of liberals who enjoyed their little community, but were not going to claim the religious implications of their message. I won’t go so far to say I had an epiphany this summer with the police, but rather than wallowing in memories of Woodstock’s summer of love, it brought me to another memory of that same summer. The walk on the moon forty years ago allowed everyone to see earth from afar for the first time. We could truly see ourselves. It is one thing to like myself and what I want, and feel a sense of belonging to those people and things that nurture us or we enjoy, or are related to. But it is quite another to embrace a Muslim who changes my whole world, or maybe even a police officer who threatens my world. From the moon landing to the reality of global warming, we come to see we are all in this, and there is a fundamental need to change and adapt to a new world. It is the opportunity to see Abraham’s vision come to fruition. And in our own time, it is also your vision, our Unitarian Universalist faith that we need to share with the world. It is why we have rainbow flags and sing of feeling identification not merely with our country, but with all countries. It is our theological truth that one love unites us as a people, and as a planet, and we need to help the world realize that love. That is our religious calling. I hope you join me in feeling as though you belong to this people, and will give your heart to this faith that wants to see the entire world as one.

Closing words – from Eileen Karpeles

As we part now from one another, let these be our thoughts: If that which is most holy lies within the human person, and if the greatest power in the world shines flickering and uncertain from each individual heart, then it is easy to see the value of human associations dedicating to nurturing that light: the couple, the family, the religious community.

For the power of good in any one of us must at times waver. But when a group together is dedicated to nurturing the power of good, it is rare for the light to grow dim in all individuals at the same moment.

So we borrow courage and wisdom from one another, to warm us and keep us whole until we’re together again.

“Seeing Clearly” by Christopher Johnson – May 31, 2009

“Seeing Clearly” by Christopher Johnson – May 31, 2009

“Seeing Clearly” by Chris Johnson
31 May 2009

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”
Friedrich Nietzsche
German classical Scholar, Philosopher and Critic of culture, 1844-1900.

As I sat down to work on this sermon, I strayed a bit from the advertised topic “Vision – How we View the World, Others and Ourselves” and found myself thinking more about how we see – and share – truth. It’s now called “Seeing Clearly”.


Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
Marcus Aurelius
Emperor of Rome, 161-180

I bought my first camera when I was about 10 or 11. Since then, I’ve loved photography. I’m fascinated with identifying and isolating those things we pass by daily and then I try bring them front and center in a way that (hopefully) makes us stop and say “wow. THAT’s what that looks like??? I never noticed!”

I’m amazed at how light, contrast and color interact. I can get fixated on how the shape of a tree limb echoes the street light it’s next to. I marvel at the symmetry of a spider’s web or the tiniest of flowers.

And I seek to capture it all on film … or, rather, in pixels nowadays.

Is what I do (when I take a picture) the recording of an objective reality, or is it an expression of how I, as the photographer, see and want to present what is before me?

Reality? Perception? Or a creative blending of the two?

[You were given a photo when you came in this morning. It asks a question. Can anyone answer it?]

When I was recently showing a friend the photos I took on a trip to Kenya, she commented on how the close-cropped face of an elephant looks like a rock. If it weren’t for the eye and long lashes, you’d swear you were looking at something mineral, not animal. [The photo? It’s an elephant.]

The reality of what’s being viewed is the face of an elephant. The perception of it is to some extent directed by the photographer – but its meaning is always digested and interpreted by the viewer. Reality. Perception. What is objective truth and what is subjective interpretation?

This dynamic is not something we only encounter when looking at a photograph of an elephant, or a close-up of a flower. And it is not something we encounter merely daily. It is the very essence of how we take in everything we see. Every moment. We are constantly observing, filtering, and interpreting what we see. We add each new image to our ever-growing internal catalog.

The new image can help us understand something that we’ve already encountered. Or, we may see in the new image only what we expect – because of how we’ve already filtered and interpreted all those images that have come before it.


We filter all the information we receive – not just what we get visually.

Do we, for example, always hear what another says when we are in the midst of an argument? Isn’t our ability to be objective affected by our emotions? Our lack of objectivity doesn’t change the reality of what was said. Or does it? Is reality defined by some objective standard or by individual experience?

HOW we hear something is no less a part of reality than WHAT was actually said.

Our perception creates our reality.


Mark Twain is noted for his terse observations of the human condition. He said:
“Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thought that is forever flowing through one’s head.”


We live continually within our own perceptions. We can read or listen to the opinions and observations of others and try to understand their experience and perspective. But, even then, when we are focused, open-minded, and making an effort, we are still filtering that message. We can’t help but do so. We receive no “pure” information. Nothing gets into me without it being affected by me.


How many of us make bad decisions? I think it’s safe to say we all do.

How many of us CHOOSE to make bad decisions?

Do any of us, when faced with a choice, say “I really believe that I should do X” and then deliberately do the opposite? Setting those times aside when we simply don’t know the answer, and so we take our best guess – when we think that we are right about something, do we choose what we believe is wrong?

No. I don’t think so.

When we make a decision, we choose to act as we do because we believe we are right. In fact, don’t we very often KNOW that we’re right?

In the decision-making process, from inside this individual/very personal experience, it can be extremely difficult for us to see ourselves as wrong. For if we realized we were wrong, we’d make a different choice!! And so, we see ourselves as right. In fact, then, couldn’t we say that each one of us is always right?

Hmm. I wonder if this is related at all to the meaning of the word “self-righteous”?


You know, I consider myself to be an individual with pretty strong moral and social values. Like you, I have an internal compass that tells me right from wrong. I can quickly recognize when I – or someone else – have made an error. And I can be QUITE opinionated about that “someone else” and how WRONG they got it!

It’s been pointed out to me that my strong sense of right and wrong can give me a sense of self-righteous indignation when wronged or when witnessing something that I see as wrong. My personal sense of right-ness can make me critical and judgmental. Now that’s certainly behavior I would say is wrong. But – it stems from my sense of being so damn right! It’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing isn’t it?

Because we can only view the world through our own perceptions, we make judgments about all we encounter from that singular reality – “me”. If we each have this “me” filter through which we’re encountering reality, where is objectivity? What is truth?

For example: Many people view George W. Bush as arrogant and stubborn. Others see him as a man of strong values and unwavering conviction. Both of these observations can be valid – because each person’s reality is true. Every person is right.

A half-dozen years ago, when marriage equality found center stage of the public forum, I became very involved in all those rallies outside the State House. During them, I experienced a variety of strong emotions when I viewed the chanting crowd across the street – those who opposed marriage rights for same-sex couples. I felt anger, frustration, confusion, and even fear.

Anger. Because they don’t see how wrong they are and how right I am!

Frustration. Because if they simply LISTENED to me, they’d certainly see how right my position is!

Confusion. Because I really don’t get how anyone could hold such an unenlightened, closed-minded position!

Fear. What if they win? Well, they CAN’T! They’re WRONG! Cuz, I’M certainly not!

And, you know what? I bet every person across the street who was chanting “it’s Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” felt anger, frustration, confusion and fear for the very same reasons.

Why? Because they’re right. What else could they be? Just like me, they’re RIGHT.


It was during this time-period I had a memorable one-on-one encounter. I was outside a polling place here in Watertown during an election – I had volunteered to talk with people about marriage equality. There was this one man – a hefty guy – really big – with longish hair, and ripped-off sleeves that showed his many tattoos. If I had to guess, I’d say he probably got to the polls on a Harley. I remember thinking, “well, this guy could be one extreme on the other – total counter-cultural liberal or total conservative evangelical.”

I started to talk with him. He was very pleasant and he listened patiently and respectfully. When I was done, I asked him if he would contact his state representative and senator in support of marriage rights, he said: “No. I won’t. It’s an abomination. Your agenda is an abomination. You’re disgusting and your agenda for children is disgusting.” He said all (and more!) this very calmly. Matter-of-factly. Looking me in the eyes and smiling as if he was giving me directions to the nearest Dunkin Donuts, rather than calling me a pervert to my face. His was such a strange mixture of, all at once, being totally respectful in how he patiently listened, and totally disrespectful in how he insulted me personally. It was an impressive feat!

Time seemed to slow for me. It was a being-in-a-car-wreck sorta moment. As I heard his words and watched him smile, I seethed inside. His words swirled in my head like a vortex building up a serious head of steam.

When he stopped talking, he stood there, he didn’t disengage and walk away after having his say, as you might expect. He waited for my response.

What I said to him is not as important as how I chose to respond. I calmly told him that I had no agenda for children and that what he said is totally offensive. I then said that it is clear that he is not going to convince me and I’m not going to convince him. So perhaps we should just end the conversation.

Then I did something that shocked me. I offered him my hand. He paused. Looked at it. Took it. Shook hands. And left without another word.


I share this story not because I think I got one up on him – but because I don’t.

I think, sitting here right now, we all can recognize how futile it would’ve been for the two of us to enter into a debate. It would’ve been an act of pure frustration. Yet, how often, when we encounter an opposing view point do we choose to disengage? How often, instead, do we make every effort to convince the other person of how right we are and how wrong they are?

What is it about our opinions that make us hold onto them as if our lives depended on it? What makes our opinions (and the desire to have others accept them as right) so very vital?

It may be that our opinions are the purest expression of ourselves – afterall, they are the product of all that filtered and processed input. These are our thoughts – our thoughts on the most critical of topics, afterall! Of course we hold them dear!

Politics. Religion. Taxes. Morality. Human Rights. The Environment.

We’re UUs, of COURSE we have strong opinions on these things!!!


There is a long-standing philosophical debate about the nature of reality and truth. Is there one objective truth? Or a subjective multiplicity? My intention here is not to get into an analysis of moral relativism – but to look at how each of our personal experiences impacts our openness to others and our ability to share genuinely.


Wouldn’t it be just be great if we were ALL UUs? The liberal, open-minded, I-accept-you-as-you-are religion?

How would that come about? I mean, wouldn’t we have to convert the world? OK, let’s start smaller – let’s just say… convert Watertown. As a parish, we’ve discussed this sort of thing in very real terms – how do we grow the parish, increase our numbers?

How would we do it? Would we reach out to people to convince them of the right-ness of our religion? How different would that be from evangelicals of any faith who are convinced of their righteousness?

Maybe that’s why we don’t see UUs proselytizing door-to-door. Or why we don’t find copies of Thoreau’s “Walden” in the night stands of every hotel. Proselytizing just isn’t part of our make-up.

But that’s not for lack of conviction! Have you ever witnessed a UU in a debate about politics or taking a stand on human rights? Or maybe I should say, have you ever BEEN the UU in a debate about politics or taking a stand on human rights!

In taking a position, in expressing our opinion, we are putting ourselves out there. We make ourselves a bit vulnerable. By sharing our position, we open it to scrutiny and to the possibility of learning the right-ness of the other’s position. By entering into a discourse, we invite in the possibility of being wrong. As long as we live within our own little experiential eco-system, we are always right. When we try to carry that “right-ness” out into the world, it is up for challenge, for we bump into the right-ness of others.

When I encounter an opposing point of view, how do I meet it? With feet fixed firmly in place or with ears open and brain on “receive”?

How open am I – really – to being wrong on those things of substance?

Politics. Religion. Taxes. Morality. Human Rights. The Environment.

And how open are others who do not share my point of view? Probably about as open (or closed) as I am.

Where does this leave us then? How will we ever get all of Watertown – let alone the whole world – to join the right-ness of UUism? Leave behind those false gods and accept the truth of pluralism!


Whether we are talking about winning over the world to UUism, or about something more urbane, such as, what the new chairs for the sanctuary will look like – pressing a point, pushing an agenda, holding an immoveable position will certainly not win over the audience.

But, of course, my point is not about converting people to UUism. I use that only to pose a more individual question: even when I embrace open-mindedness, how do I move beyond merely recognizing the multiplicity of opinions and life choices – and move beyond that to a greater personal challenge: recognizing that it is not my responsibility to make sure the rest of the world is right.

That man I encountered outside the polling place – as breath-taking as his opinion’s of homosexuality were, and as numbing as his accusations were, I walked away from that encounter feeling satisfied and secure. I actually respected him. As much as his viewpoint repulsed me, I respected his ability to honestly and fearlessly share, and his willingness to listen to me.

What I liked most, though, was the willingness on both our parts to walk away and let the other believe he was right.

There is no more destructive force in human affairs — not greed, not hatred — than the desire to be right. Non-attachment to possessions is trivial when compared with non-attachment to opinions.
– Mark Kleiman
Professor of Public Policy at the UCLA School of Public Affairs

Chuck Gallozzi
Author on subjects related to Personal Development

You’re a human and so am I. There’s no argument there. The sky is blue and the grass is green. There’s no argument there either. After all, these are FACTS, and we’re all in agreement with them. But why do so many of us have a need to be ‘right’ regarding OPINIONS?

A man driving in LA is outraged by another driver cutting him off. In his opinion, the driver who cut him off is unbearably rude. “I’ll show him,” he thinks, as he now tries to cut off the ‘rude’ driver. This incident explodes into a full-blown case of road rage, which leads to an accident and the death of the outraged driver. He might have been ‘right,’ but now he’s dead right.

An obsessive need to be ‘right’ is irrational, but, sadly, very common. For instance, what makes one believe that our neighbors are incompetent to think for themselves and need to be ‘saved’ by our own brand of religion?

Some of us get easily upset in the workplace. We insist that others do things the ‘right’ (our) way. Yet, isn’t it more important to do the right thing than do things right?

When I insist that I’m ‘right,’ I slam the door of my mind. I remain locked in past beliefs. I stop growing. I have a shallow understanding of the world and limited choice. But if I change my focus from what is RIGHT to what IS, something magical happens. The moment I accept the fact that others have different views and willingly consider them, rather than fight them, I am transformed. Transformed from a prisoner to an adventurer and explorer. …
(Why is being right so important to us)? One reason is the discomfort of uncertainty. Living in a world of uncertainty makes some feel like the earth is crumbling beneath their feet. There is no stability, nothing to hang on to (except their own opinions and beliefs). Yet, when we change our perspective and think of uncertainty as surprise, wonder, awe, growth, opportunity, and delight, we can embrace it.

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