“Love” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – December 12, 2010
Call to Worship – from Robert French Leavens
Holy and beautiful the custom which brings us together,
In the presence of the most high:
To face our ideals,
To remember our loved ones in absence,
To give thanks, to make confession, to offer forgiveness,
To be enlightened, and to be strengthened.
Through this quiet hour breathes the worship of ages,
The cathedral music of history.
Three unseen guest attend,
Faith, hope and love:
Let all our hearts prepare them place.
Readings from Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
“Wild Nights” by Emily Dickinson
From Letters by Rainer Maria Rilke
“Wild Nights” by Emily Dickinson
Wild nights —Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Futile — the Winds—
To a heart in port—
Done with the Compass—
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden—
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight—
From Letters by Rainer Maria Rilke
Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side by side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.
Sermon – “Love”
We all learned about human sexuality in vastly different ways. For many of you who are my age and older it was a subject parents did not discuss with children, especially if you did not grow up Unitarian Universalist. I variously heard about the stork carrying babies in a sack over its enormous beak, or that somehow little foundlings appeared under cabbage leaves. Neither concocted story was very satisfying to a young boy. My father once mumbled something about the birds and bees, and suggested I read a book. While I enjoyed the challenge of searching for naked tribes people in the National Geographic’s or reading the known “dirty” passages in selected books in my local library, it was simply not enough. Eventually I took an ecumenical sex education class at a liberal Congregational church, as my own church was silent on the subject. Church and parental silence on the subject reminds me of a story Jill Lepore tells in a New Yorker article. When she was young Lepore was reading a passage from Sherlock Holmes, where one of the characters gets excited about finding a precious stone, and the descriptive words for his outburst are: “I ejaculated.” Upon reading this, Lepore went to find her father and in her curiosity about this new word asked, Hey Dad, what does ejaculate mean? He put the paper down and sighed.
I, too, was on the receiving end of a lot of silence and sighing. Unfortunately that resulted in a lot of on site training or learning about sexuality by experience for me. But then again, this was the time to be so engaged. Before I went there, the college I eventually attended had dormitories with house parents, where all students signed in and out, and it was forbidden for men and women to visit each other in the privacy of their own rooms. Within the span of my first two years at Bates the infirmary offered birth control pills to anyone who wanted them, visitation was 24 hours a day, and we were planning the first coed dorms, where I became the resident advisor in my senior year. My father said, it was like having the fox in charge of the hen house. This was the era of the sexual revolution, a contraceptive revolution, and a youth rebellion big-time. This was also the time when the Unitarian Universalist Association was developing the first comprehensive and explicit sex education curriculum in America, About Your Sexuality or AYS, the precursor to our present day OWL or Our Whole Lives. How would our freedom loving faith respond to a freedom loving time?
I am talking about human sexuality in church. Yes, even for the liberated liberals who want to help their young people make good ethical decisions, and have all the necessary information they need to make good sexual choices, we still mostly confine this subject to closed door meetings. It is an awkward subject, even an intimate one, and thus certainly also not one we usually discuss in polite circles or in sermons. Plus many of us who lived through silence on the subject or shame that we had feelings that were deemed wrong or sinful still find it difficult to mention the subject in a public setting. Yet so many topics are sexually charged. The Senate refuses to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the news media report the Pope saying that condom usage might be acceptable if used to prevent AIDS, but we must never waver from the belief that sex is only for procreation. Sex as dirty or shameful or unspeakable all stems from a religious foundation. But why?
Is it what religious traditions say? Hardly. Think of the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Scriptures – “I am my lover’s and he desires me . . . let us wake early . . . and see if the if the new grape bud is open. There I will give you my love.” In the book, The Sabbath World, Judith Shulevitz, suggests that sex drives the Biblical narrative. There are all kinds of rules about sexuality in the scriptures. Is this to make it forbidden? No, she says, it is to make it right. And so timing and vows, circumcision, and the right choice of partners are all part of a promise from God about the fulfillment of the partnership between God and people. These rules imply that this is a powerful act, but furthermore it is the most sacred of human activities because sex “bears the word and power of God.” But most of us learned something quite different.
Those of us who grew up Christian are children of St. Augustine who said the rational soul is better than the body, which is the inferior part. And in this inferior part, there is a rebellion in the flesh. This is a spontaneous uprising, not to be too literal here, in what he called disobedient members. So he relates natural sexual desire to disobedience, and especially sees its origin in Adam and Eve’s rebellion, where of course Eve becomes the seductress of man. What disturbs Augustine is that this is independent of the will, and a sign of the ongoing nature of original sin. The sad thing is that you can’t even have desire in order to have children, so in effect, we are conceived in sin. So the early church fathers made all sexual intercourse impure. Now for marriage to be sacred it must be purged of sexual passion because that is what led Adam and Eve into sin. The idea that sex is only for procreation comes out of this perverted understanding of the body and sexuality.
But we believe sexual desire is a normal human response to other humans in this life we share, and sex is not something sinful or forbidden or shameful, but in fact is life-giving, part of which is procreation, but it is also life and relationship filling and fulfilling in and of itself. It is part and parcel of what it means to love and be loved. What we would affirm as a positive sexual ethic would be one based in relationship. While we certainly reject the view that sexuality is sinful, and also reject laws to govern sexual behavior as too restrictive, we do affirm that sexual behavior can be exploitative and abusive. The relationship must be mutual and consensual, and not coerced or manipulated. The Dickinson poem is instructive here. This kind of passion from her may surprise us, because we often portray her as unmarried and we have a shadowy understanding of her sexuality. Perhaps she believed this union of sheer passion – the wild nights – could only occur in the safety of another’s trust and care. This is rowing in Eden, the paradise where we can act on our desire, but not be afraid that someone will exploit this desire and hurt us or reject us. She seems to be giving in to desire at first, saying let it all be about freedom, but her freedom to express herself safely, with true passion, only comes when she is in port. One can also see why the church was afraid of sexual expression. Desire can bring us to the edge of where we are comfortable. There can be an enticement to danger in this expression. In the context of this poem, we could argue that sexual fulfillment, for both partners, is best when we express our love in fidelity to one partner, We might say that the root of a good relationship, sexual and otherwise, is trust.
The fulfillment of love then, comes when the expressions of heart, mind and body are working in conjunction. Love, the Greeks told us, is a trinity of philia and agape, and eros, the expression of bodily passion. John and Abigail Adams, two Unitarian forebears understood this trio. They united their like-minded spirits in a wonderful partnership that was intellectual, emotional and sexual. When they were courting she wrote to him in 1763 that, “There is a three fold chord, and by this chord I am not ashamed to say that I am bound, nor do I believe that you are wholly free from it.” They married the following year. Love and eventually marriage is the final leg of the round the world journey of Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Today we come to her experience of finding love in Bali, with an older Brazilian man, Felipe. Love for her becomes the balancing of the prior experiences she has in Italy and India – pleasure and devotion. In some ways we have explored the importance of following our desires, and not being consumed by our shame or guilt about them. As a culture we often view pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure in a voyeuristic kind of way, so it relates to Gilbert’s distinction between pleasure and entertainment. Sex is not to satisfy an individual’s desire; it is to fulfill that desire for another in relationship. It is about enjoying one another, not one’s self. As Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife Sophia once said, “The truly married alone can know what a wondrous instrument [sex] is for the purposes of the heart.” Gilbert is afraid of entering another relationship after her divorce experience, followed by a rebound romance, but she does.
The most common Biblical passage about love that is used in wedding ceremonies is from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, echoed in our opening words with faith, hope and love. That passage reminds us that love is suppose to be patient and kind, not boastful, arrogant or rude, almost sounding down right perfect. If only we were that good. One thing Gilbert talks about in the reading is that there are always huge complications in our relationships, and men sometimes think they may avoid these difficulties. Good luck, she says. But broken hearts, we are reminded, show that we have tried to give
ourselves to love, and that it takes time to get over these deeply painful mistakes and failures. As Rilke once wrote, “For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us.” No one said it would be easy.
Perhaps the main criticism of this portion of the book is that it fulfills the sexist stereotype of what women need. Her yearlong quest ends in a relationship with a man to whom it seems she will become wedded (which she does). Her balance is found in a deeper relationship, while the speculation is that a man’s journey would lead to some higher destiny. Perhaps so, but one wishes the culture might see some balance for us all in relationships rather than with success. One could argue that we should all give in to love. This is certainly one of the prevailing problems with the expression of sexuality. Going back to the feminist movement of the 1970’s and the coexistent sexual revolution, many of us had high hopes that some measure of equality would come to our society. And while women have made tremendous athletic, educational and economic gains, I must say that I continue to be appalled by the ongoing sale of every conceivable item in the metaphorical guise of a woman’s body. This demeaning depiction of women and the value in their attractiveness maintains the sexual exploitiveness of our culture, and thus the inability of all of us to gain deeper relationships when sex is so trivialized and commercialized. What this leads to emotionally is that for some women I have known is that they learn that their value must be based in how desirable they are. And so sexual relationships become a litmus test of whether you are a worthy person or not. While we all want to be attractive to our partners, the true test will always be the beauty of our heart’s compassion and caring not the amount of makeup or haircut. The poet Rilke had concerns about this issue when he wrote: “Someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement, but only of life and reality. Rilke looked to a time when we could affirm two solitudes – We try to affirm woman and man, woman and woman, man and man, and that in these relationships the two solitudes would protect each other, border one another and greet one another in integrity and in truth.
Tines have changed, with the sexual revolution ending in a disease revolution. It is why a pope would even consider condoms. And while I had too little information, our children may have too much, and in our consumer culture the desire for relationship is stronger than ever. In that generation of change our faith developed an amazing sex education curriculum. My son Joel’s most significant memory of it was how to put the condom on the banana. We joke about it now. But it helped remove the concept that sex was dirty, sinful and forbidden, all what I learned and dutifully ignored. It showed us that sexual relationships and acts were good and healthy, and even healing. It helped us address gender roles and identity so that there is respect and understanding for all persons. These times were not without controversy. The UUA was accused of violating Wisconsin obscenity laws with its explicit materials. Freedom and license to use our faith to affirm the self and anything that self chooses to do without ethical or familial consequences was one failure of those times. Because of our emphasis on freedom, we often struggle with moral codes, but more recently the promise of creating loving communities over the commitment to freedom of expression for the individual seems a positive step to me. The more we are safe in relationship, the more we can find pleasure in relationship. The more equal we are in relationship, the better we will be. Sexuality must be expressed so that we are both affirmed in our personal integrity, and in our commitment to each other. We are vulnerable creatures, and we all seek emotional and spiritual health.
Liz Gilbert says that the Balinese people do not let their babies’ feet touch the ground for the first six months of life. This is a sign that babies are sent straight from God. This week I had some amazing news about a baby. A former parishioner of mine emailed and then called. When she was a teenager she had become pregnant, and eventually gave birth. These were the days when it was common to give a baby up for adoption, and so the baby was whisked away at birth, and that was seemingly the end of the story. Years later she shared her painful story with me. What a sacrifice. What a loss. Not long ago, now 41 years since that birth, she received an email asking about her name and whereabouts 41years ago. A new law allowing adopted children to procure their original birth certificates had passed. Her son, now living in Mississippi, had found her, his birth mother. His adopted mother died when he was ten. On Friday she told me that she and her son had reunited, and she was fine until it was time to say goodbye, when he embraced her and said, I love you, mom. Love is difficult. Love is painful. The baby’s birth we are about to celebrate was also shrouded in abnormal circumstance, coming from what appears to be a forbidden sexual relationship, and a resulting pregnancy. We celebrate his humanity, flawed because he was human, and humble from that birth in the stable. He was one of us, infused with the touch of the godly. In this season of love come to earth, we would all try to foster relationships that are less difficult and painful. More loving and affirming and just. But the story ultimately reminds us that despite the pain, and the difficulty of the journey, love is indeed possible once again.
Closing Words – from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, uniting with another person – it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances.
“Pray” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – December 5, 2010
Call to Worship – from Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, or swaying, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world’s word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: this hum is the silence.
Reading – from Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Sermon – “Pray” – Mark W. Harris
As a child I thought prayer worked. I mean “really worked” in a kind of calling up God arrangement, like the old dial up internet service, except my signal was always busy. That was definitely the notion of prayer I received in my conservative Congregational church. I once did a sermon on prayer and called it “Let’s Make a Deal,” after that old Monty Hall game show, where the contestants gazed glassy eyed on three huge, garage size doors at the end of the show. Would they be the big winner if they chose correctly as to what was behind door # 1, 2, or 3? Well, I thought God the answer man was behind the big door in the sky ready to heal my grandmother of her fatal disease, stop my parents from arguing, and give me the big Little League victory. As I became older I learned that the supernatural world was merely a natural one, and that the best outcomes in these cases came from good doctors and healthy diet, better listening and less drinking, and practice, practice, practice so I could be the best hitter to help my team to victory. I learned over time that prayer was something to be experienced in this world, and not outside of it. Prayer was not so much to change God’s mind, as it was to change us. Plus as a rebellious teenager I kept hearing Jim Morrison of the Doors rebuking the pretenders to the throne of God singing: “You cannot petition the Lord in prayer.”
In the song “The Soft Parade,” Morrison was recalling his “time back in seminary school” when he rejected that kind of prayer. But then he went on to say, “Can you give me sanctuary? I must find a place to hide.” These were references to his problems with the law, and his need to get away. Like Morrison, most of us would reject petitionary prayer that is a list of items we are asking God to heal, protect, or save us from. This rejection was typical of all liberals in the 20th century. There was no scientific evidence that God was going to rescue anybody. For fundamentalists though, prayer enabled the individual to leave the world and cope with the onslaughts of a Godless daily existence. While fundamentalists had to wait for miraculous interventions, liberals spoke of finding God in the world at any time or place, so that the entire world was a temple, and any spot an altar. One did not have to go away to a special place, but rather could communicate with the divine by tending your garden or taking a walk. There is no otherworldly spiritual realm for us because this world is our spiritual realm. What this meant, especially for liberals, was that prayer, should not be so much about changing the natural order, but rather about addressing moral and spiritual concerns. This is helpful to remember, because, if you were like me, then you thought of prayer as only about asking for things.
If that was the case, then you probably rejected prayer outright as pie in the sky ridiculous. Prayer in general has been a difficult, or even superfluous topic for most Unitarian Universalists. The old joke is that Unitarians pray to one God, at most. There is not only the problem of figuring out the purpose if you are not asking for a divine favor, but also just who it is exactly that you are directing these words to. One person who says God may pray “Our father” and see an all-powerful bearded father when they use the term. Another individual may reject that idea of God, but still say “spirit of life,” to mean some kind of divine essence. We each have our own understanding of divinity or even none at all. These disparate feelings we often have about the theological languages people use, and what it means, came up the other night in my history class at Andover Newton. One of my students was reminding us that in our tolerant efforts to try to speak to the different spiritual longings of all our members, we often get hung up on a litany of words. Thus the prayers begin: source of life, mysterious presence, holy power, gracious spirit, etc., etc. so that by the time we go through all the machinations that we feel will please the diverse gathering of theists, atheists, agnostics, Christians and Buddhists, she says, she just does not care any more. But I think it would be a mistake to say, forget it. First, the fundamentalists had it correct that the materialism of the world will swallow us and destroy the spirit. And second, I think most of us in our striving to be loving, compassionate people who want to make the world a better place, are truly praying in one way or another all the time.
One thing the catalog of terms we use to begin a prayer reflects is that all these different understandings of the divine reveal that we can never truly know who or what this ground of being is. When each of us tries to approach divinity it is highly personal. Yet prayer has always been understood this way. When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he said, as I reiterated a few weeks ago in my sermon on privacy, go into your room, shut the door, and pray alone. “Pray,” as I indicated earlier is the second of a three part sermon series based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love. The Pray phase of her globetrotting is when she continues her journey of self-discovery, leaves gluttony behind in Italy, and tries to find God in an ashram in India through a devoted practice of meditation. It is a good thing that prayer is personal because the great criticism of this book is that Gilbert is a self-indulgent narcissist, who has seemingly endless resources to fund this around the world travel, even as she is in the midst of recovering from her divorce, which is the event that has precipitated this entire pilgrimage. Yet despite what some perceive as a fatal flaw, others, especially women, see the book
as a panacea for their dissatisfaction with life, or searching for affirmation, and adore it.
Just as with eating, Gilbert does provide insight into praying. She has a history of trying to converse with God. Early in the book a friend convinces her that it is ok to try petitionary prayer, and she does so with a letter to God wherein she seeks some resolution to her terrible marital conflict, feeling that the renewed health of two individuals on the planet will help the overall health of the globe, and be pleasing to God. Everyone under the sun signs on to her imaginary petition, including Bill and Hilary Clinton – speaking of marital conflict. This process of soliciting supporters among the living and dead lifts her anxiety, and lo and behold, her prayer is answered, when her ex signs the divorce agreement. On to Italy and then, India. Gilbert admits she is someone who has chased frantically after contentment for years, and realizes that this relentless pursuit only leaves her less and less satisfied with life. Her need to control everything means she can never drop the handle, and simply let things be. And so the first thing she teaches us about prayer is that we must tame our buzzing minds, so that we can truly hear what Annie Dillard calls the hum of the world, the sound of life.
This is a large task for someone raised in our noisy culture. You may have seen those commercials on television for the Dyson vacuum cleaners. They are the ones where the totally self-possessed Englishman informs us that he has built a better product. Well it turns out that the Dyson vacs that are made for the American market are louder than the European and Asian models because the people in their R and D department feel Americans associate power and productivity with noise, and we will not trust a quiet machine. But it is not only the noise of the vacuums of the world that makes our minds buzz, it is also the over stimulation we receive from information sources. As someone who loves information this is a special challenge to me. One of the ways I think deeply and reflectively about things is to read. These passages become devotionals as the pathway to contemplation of life’s deeper meaning. Whereas once we could read and thoughtfully reflect on books, now we must become managers of endless electronic information that is often bad or useless, and so we make quick decisions about things rather than building upon study. We are not going to get rid of this information revolution, and so what each of us must do is carve out space where we can have time to reflect and contemplate information and thoughts about life’s most important questions and decisions.
For Gilbert, the quieting of the mind led her to meditate on and with God. There is a kind of cleansing ourselves of distractions in order to meditate in this way. If the letting go of the noise of the world is one part of meditation, then not being tied to results is the other. This of course is part of the problem with petitions and prayer; we are looking for tangible results. Meditation helps us relax. It helps with anxiety. It helps us get in touch with larger life forces that surge within us. For some it may even help them touch the divine. But is it prayer? For some the hard work and discipline and regular meditating may help them personally to get in touch with God or let go of their own anger or pain. When we breathe with the universe we may feel its strength caress us and holds and even empower us. I believe this helps us with gaining a sense of humility. One thing I am not convinced of with Gilbert is that while she says she gives up the world to find God, it still feels very results driven to me. She seems to say, I am going to do this, and then look at me, I am one of those who see God clearly. The problem is I don’t see much of a distinction between her and God. She seems smugly self-satisfied like what our Transcendentalist ancestors were accused of, when they were called ego-theists. Instead of what she gets out of it, what I would like to see more clearly is that she is truly giving up something of herself. I find that meditation helps with certain kinds of prayer, instead of reflecting on what I have accomplished or wishing for more, quiet reflection gives pause to offer blessings to the universe for the life we have received. We make an offer of gratitude to the creation that we have been given this one small moment in the infinity of time to be here, to enjoy this creation as a living breathing soul. We are at once humbled by our existence, but grateful to be part of a larger existence. We feel in our deepest soul that famous prayer by Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘Thank you,’ it will suffice.”
As a minister and as person seeking meaning, I have often prayed. This has included prayerful thoughts for the healing and the strength of others. It has included meditation where I have tried to clear my mind to reduce anger and stress, and it has included public prayer where I try to hold up the power the community provides in affirming its members, and in lending a healing message and a helpful hand to a hurting world. Yet the kind of praying I do the most of is akin to what Gilbert does when she is working out her divorce. She seeks God in her devotion to prayer, and while I believe in a connective power of love that is in us and in the universe, it is not God that I seek; it is answers to the perplexing problems of life. Therefore more often than not, prayer is not favors or deals with God, but neither is it feeling a oneness with the universe, although I do feel that, by the crash of the ocean’s waves or by looking into another’s eyes. Most of my praying is done with eyes open, and with heart in deep reflection. It begins with questions such as: What do I need to focus on in my life right now? What do I most need to do? Am I paying attention to those I love and who most love me? How are they? What is preventing me from being more loving, a better listener, more compassionate? I suppose the more orthodox prayer would say, God, please help me with these concerns – help me see clearly, give me direction, what should I do? But I feel more like I am talking to myself. And I know I am not God. In seminary I learned God was a woman anyway.
I am happy for Elizabeth Gilbert that she found God through meditation, but I believe prayer is much more interactive than that. I do need to quiet the mind. I do need to let ego and results go and then focus on the most holy inward feeling. But for me God and the world are one, and so my prayer must be this conversation with self or conscience or universe on how are things going, and what can I do to make those things better. I pray all the time, and while usually the change in me is hardly noticeable, it is the most difficult reflecting I do. There is a Universalist affirmation of faith that is similar in many ways to the affirmation we say every Sunday, which is Unitarian in origin. This Universalist affirmation begins – Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.” Service is our prayer. This was brought hone to me the other night in history class when I was teaching about the origins of the humanist movement. One of its great leaders John Dietrich believed that humanism was carrying out a central message of Christianity in a new way. It was not the story of Jesus’ life. Nor was it a story of his resurrection. It was his central message that the kingdom of God is coming. For Dietrich this kingdom was a holy commonwealth of humanity, and it was not God who would bring it about, but people. But the message was clear. What am I going to do to make the world a better place? Traditional prayer can make us oblivious to the world. Even in Gilbert’s case, she may find God, but how does that help anyone but herself? It is hard not to get swallowed by the world – the material is seductive and overwhelming. That is why we need prayer – to give us strength and courage to make our vision manifest in the world. Prayer invites us to action. W. H. Auden said, “To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself.” Focusing completely on something other than me: a landscape, a child, a people, a movement, we find the courage and the will for action. I must do this. I will go there. Gilbert talks about ritualized habits in the reading with her story about tying the cat to a pole. Our liberal cat preventing us from realizing our prayers is often too much talk about prayer, when we could be walking the walk, and living the focus of our prayers.
Many UUs have found meditation recently as a meaningful discipline. I think that is a good thing. But it should also be a discipline that leads us not deeper into ego gratification, but more into world healing. The advent season is upon. In our culture it can be loud and pressurized, but it can also be a time of quiet reflection. Even a time of prayer that leads us to action to bring about a better world for all. It is a time for waiting. What is waiting to be born in you? Pray on that. The world is ready to hear your prayer as soon as we are ready to act upon it.
Closing Words – from Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even address the prayer to “World.” Distinctions blue. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.
“Eat” by Mark W. Harris
November 28, 2010 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – #515 (Responsive) “We Lift Up Our Hearts in Thanks” by Richard Fewkes
Responsive Reading #512 “We Give Thanks This Day” by O. Eugene Pickett
Reading – from Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Sermon – “Eat” Mark W. Harris
On the roof of the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine is a neon sign with one three-letter word arranged in a criss-cross pattern. The word is EAT. It seems like the kind of sign you might see on a 1960’s roadside restaurant. In fact you might expect to see it accompanied by other signs such as GOOD FOOD, or EAT HERE. They are the kind of simple messages to entice the wandering travelers to fill their empty, gnawing bellies as they cross some newly minted turnpike, maybe surrounded by corn that looks so green and luscious as it frames the entire state of Iowa, but you cannot stop and simply grab an ear because it is not in any kind of edible form, like flakes or cooked sweet on the cob, and dripping with butter. It may even remind you that corn is the villain of environmentally conscious people, that we have too much of the stuff and it goes into grain that feeds the too many animals that we all eat way too much of, or the corn syrup that is in every prepared food imaginable, and has made us way too fat. I am torn because there is nostalgia and history tied up with these memories of EAT. Growing up, I remember corn as good and abundant, (the raccoons stole a lot of it, bandits with their little black masks) as were all the vegetables from the family garden. It was where I learned to love spinach and Swiss chard and Kentucky wonder beans, the long tender ones that tasted so good when slathered with butter and salt and pepper. I was a kid who loved to eat vegetables, and they were about as local as you could get, as they were a fifty yard walk down to the garden.
So the neon EAT sign is not from a restaurant at all. It is art in fact. The work of an artist named Robert Indiana who is known to us all as the artist who arranged the letters that spell L-O-V-E on top of each other with the “O’ tilted a bit on its side. It was a sculpture that became an icon of pop culture. The artist arranged eat and love. I love to eat, but it is something I have often done way too much of in my life, and so like many others I have struggled with eating, especially when stressed. Am I making good healthy choices? What can I do to lose weight? And once I have come to some balance for myself – plenty of fiber for breakfast to avoid colon cancer, plenty of fruits and vegetables, forcing myself to drink at least a little bit of water – then I think of the larger guilt of the environmental impact. My eating problem is not that I don’t eat good foods, but instead one of volume. I eat a lot. But I not only love to eat, but truly was brought up in a home where eat was love. This was the way love was expressed. Let me cook for you, feeding you in a nourishing way showing how much I care for you.
Andrea and I bought a new car this past year. The motivating factor was primarily that our growing boys were becoming too tall for our station wagon. Our 6 foot 5 inch 250 pound sixteen year old simply did not fit any more, and we constantly heard this refrain as he jammed his body into a back seat that could hardly accommodate him and two brothers. We kept this old car, so that our aspiring teenage drivers might have a vehicle that was full of dents even before they took to the road. The new vehicle is a van, much more of a gas guzzler than we would have wanted, and so there is guilt about that, but finding something to fit all these giant bodies is not so easy. But what it really has in abundance is cup holders. I have never seen so many. There are four up front alone, which hardly seem reasonable since only two people can fit in the bucket seats, but maybe it is for coffee and water. There are two bench seats behind, each lined on the sides with more and more cup holders. It is not like we will camp out in this van, plus I hate camping, but they are there for a people on the go. We are a cup holder culture. This is symptomatic of how we live, even those who aspire to be healthy and use those holders for a water bottle rather than a coffee cup or a corn syrup infused Coca-cola. We are a people in a hurry and on the go. Yet for being on the go, we are awfully sedentary. Again I am torn. We have two cars now. Will it mean that I won’t walk to work as much? Will that then adversely affect my health, and add to a gasoline guzzling life style. It does mean with three active boys in three different schools in three different towns that life is a little less complicated. Dare I admit that life is much less stressful having two cars? It makes my life easier, but I still feel bad. I love eating, but I still feel bad. What to do?
Last month I attended my study group meeting, as I usually do twice a year. We are a group of eighteen Unitarian Universalist ministers, and we meet to discuss what we consider important topics in religion and culture. We also eat together at the retreat center. At each lunch I sat near to an old friend who grew up in suburban Ohio. She is very thin. At the first lunch she noted that I was eating a very healthy looking salad, and remarked about what I was eating looked as though it were good for me. She seemed amazed, but I didn’t comment. Then the following day I had dished out yet another salad for myself, and she couldn’t help but say that I was eating something healthy again. To her this obviously seemed remarkable, and she said, that looks like it would be really good for you. I couldn’t stand her sarcastic judgment any longer, and asked, what do you mean? She then went on to say she thought of me as a burger and fries kind of guy. Should I have felt insulted? Did I project some kind of stereotype of manly man who eats unhealthy foods and lots of meat? Didn’t she know I was once a vegetarian, and don’t really like meat unless it is covered in the case of a hamburger with ketchup and onions and relish, or better yet, salt. In fact what I really like is condiments and spice. I love sausage, but not because it is meat, but because it is spicy. And while she was probably eating suburban frozen dinners and riding around in a car to piano lessons, I grew up on a farm with Dad’s big garden, and spent my idle hours hiking in the woods. Now as to the fries. Well, I do like French fries, let it be known. It started when my father used to deep fry our own potatoes and served them with lots of salt, and ever since, while we never do deep frying at home, I often order French fries when I go out.. If you love something, don’t deny yourself. Enjoy yourself, but do it every so often, in moderation.
Today’s sermon begins the first of a three part series that derives its titles from the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Let me say that I found this a convenient way to talk about Eating, Spiritual Disciplines and Sex. Now I know that you will all be here on December 12 to hear the sex sermon. While the tri-partite division was helpful, let me also say that I am not promoting this book or even the movie that was made from it. It is not great literature, and in fact, I mostly found it to be self-indulgent, so that one very selfish person could feel good about herself. Yet the book has stood atop the paperback bestseller lists for months, so I am curious what you think of it. One person was surprised that I would read it, since it struck her as being a girl book. Gilbert does her eating in Italy, her praying in India and her loving in Bali.
In our reading you heard about how Gilbert went to Italy to experience pleasure. Many of you have heard me tell the story about my father when he was in his final days of life dying from cancer. The comment that has stayed with me is when he looked up and said, “I never knew that life could be so much fun. “ In a way it was a kind of Thanksgiving response to life. It is a realization that we are so lucky to be given this bounty to sumptuously enjoy, this world to reverence in its glorious beauty, and these people to share our hopes and dreams and love with. I never knew it could be so much fun. Look with eyes that truly see. Feel with hands that truly touch. Taste with a nose and tongue that enjoy all the wonderful smells and tastes that make eating such a wonderful pleasure. Gilbert reflects on how we often have a difficult time relaxing into sheer pleasure. Thanksgiving often becomes the work of stressful preparation. How can we make it more relaxing, or more fun for us all?
One significant thing about Gilbert’s mission is that she is going to have fun and enjoy herself. Most of us here know that good nutrition is important. We tell our children to eat fruits and vegetables because we know it is healthy. While some of us like vegetables more in theory than in fact, we do agree that they are necessary to a healthy lifestyle. So, too, is some kind of physical activity. We also know that too much meat, too many soft drinks and prepackaged foods are not going to help achieve the right diet. But we also need to say that while we need reasonable guidelines for a good diet, we also need indulgences at least from time to time. Steadfast rules about never doing this or that, makes a pretty dull existence. We all should eat responsibly, but we should also eat with a sense of experimentation, with relish and with joy. As one nutritionist writes, there is a natural inborn desire to enjoy and celebrate food. This is what Gilbert wants to experience in Italy. She doesn’t want to talk about it, or think about how healthy it is, or study it and take a survey. She wants to experience it. We can take all of out Protestant guilt, and concern for our own health and the life of the planet and use it toward nine out of ten meals, but when it comes to that tenth, why not just let go a little? And who is to say you can’t have some fun with the other nine, too? Remember that sometimes pleasure simply tastes good, and you deserve these kinds of experiences. This is where a healthy diet often intersects with the spirit of hospitality. Sometimes when we are with others, having fun is more important than following our rules. Perhaps Gilbert is too selfish, but she does remind us that eating, and many things in life must be done for sheer pleasure, and not out of guilt, or fear, or rules. We start simply by eating slowly and deliberately and savoring each bite, like the chocolate we let melt in our mouth. But meaning is much deeper than personal pleasure.
A recent issue of the New Yorker had a great joke called “The Last Thanksgiving.” In the joke there is a large table with people seated all around, and each person is voicing their desires for the Thanksgiving meal – listen to the litany with an arrow pointing to each person’s meal preference: Can’t have salt, Lactose intolerant, Vegetarian, Vegan, Macrobiotic, Fanatic Traditionalist, on a cleanse, strictly kosher, ultra picky gourmet, and allergic to gluten. Andrea’s brother’s family who are all vegetarians have the perfect Thanksgiving solution. They bring their own tofu turkey. They find a way to create their own satisfying meal, and yet they join in the fun of being with others eating what they can of the general feast. What must be held as the highest goal is the sheer pleasure of the meal, and ultimately of each other’s company, and not who is eating what. The disturbing thing in that joke is the self-righteousness and selfishness that often is reflected in our individual desires. We think of satisfying ourselves rather then remember our obligation to the whole. That is one thing those Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors got right. Their deepest hunger was to live out the “ethics of love and mutual obligation” that their faith calls upon them to enact.
This is reflected in a story from Japan. In the story an old woman is curious about the afterlife, and expresses the desire to see the difference between heaven and hell. The monks in the temple agree to grant her request. They place a blindfold around her eyes, and tell her, first you shall see hell. They bring her into a large room. It is a dining hall filled with long tables. After her blindfold is removed, she sees that the tables all have people seated around them, and they are piled high with meats and vegetables and breads and desserts. A true Thanksgiving feast. The smell of all this great food was wonderful. Yet she also noticed that each person in the room was thin and gaunt, and looked starved. They also appeared frustrated and angry. They each held a spoon, but the spoon was more than three feet long. The spoons were so long they could reach the food on the platters, but being longer than their arms they could not put the spoons into their mouths. The old woman, hearing their desperate cries, could not take the sight for long. Finally, she cried, Enough! Please show me heaven.
The monks proceeded to place the blindfold around her eyes, and she was told; now we shall show you heaven. The odd thing is that once she was in the room, and had the blindfold removed, she noticed that heaven looked very much like hell. She was confused at first. She saw the same tables. She saw the same wonderful feast with all those marvelous foods. There were people seated at the tables, and each person had the same three-foot long spoons. But the difference was in the people. They all looked fed and happy. They were laughing and joking with each other, and having a great time. Then the old woman realized what was happening and she laughed, too. She understood the true difference between heaven and hell, as it was revealed to her. The people in heaven had learned to feed each other. We are truly nourished by the food and fellowship we enjoy with each other. When I first came here to Watertown, Andrea told me a story about our former minister Convers Francis. He ministered here during a time when communion was going out of fashion. Unitarians were ceasing to find meaning in an old ritual where they remembered Jesus by eating some bread and drinking some wine. Francis had come to realize that the true communion occurred when the people met and came to form friendships and emotional bonds over sharing food and drink after the service. Andrea said it was Francis who had invented social hour. Let’s enjoy each other, he said. Let’s find the enduring presence of life and love in the relationships we form here in our community. Let’s make a living communion by expressing true thankfulness and joy for the great gifts of life we receive. Let’s eat.
Closing Words –
O Great spirit, We are here today
To thank you
For the greatest gift of all;
The power of life.
To breathe, to see, to smell, to touch
To hear, to feel, to move
With only these simple things
I know that you are in me
And I am in you.
Help me to hear your voice within
So that I may walk on the path
Of becoming what I am meant to be:
A true human being.
Be with us today and in all the days to come as we offer our humble thanks
Through the gifts of our words, our music, and our bodies, may we reach out to one another in peace and friendship.
“Private Pathways” Mark W. Harris
November 14, 2010 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Ralph Waldo Emerson
We gather in community to take a few moments to give thanks for this opportunity to be together; to give thanks for all those who have brought us love and support and to give thanks for the gift of life.
Here we take time to reflect upon what is important in our lives.
We go in to the inner recesses of our minds and hearts to try to understand ourselves, this world and our place in it. In this search for wholeness and integrity of spirit and purpose, may we remember the words of Emerson: “Whatever games are played with us, we must play no games with ourselves, but deal in our privacy with the last honesty and truth”
Reading – from Walden by Henry David Thoreau
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.
 I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
. . . Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. . .
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.
Sermon – “Private Pathways” Mark W. Harris
I grew up in a farmhouse that was built in 1770. It was pretty cramped space for four children and two parents, and even my grandmother for a time. I shared a bedroom with the brother who is five years older than I. It was a room that had doors leading to three other bedrooms and a hallway. We were the Grand Central Station of Harris bedrooms. Consequently, there was little or no privacy. Happily for me, when I turned twelve my parents expanded into the older portion of the house into what had been an unheated and unfinished attic area. At what seemed like the perfect age I was given a room of my own, as Virginia Woolf so famously described her private sanctuary. Here I could read and play to my heart’s content. I could listen to my newly discovered musical loves of Beatle and Stone, and not disturb my father whose ears only heard garbled garbage, while my ears received inspiring strains of rhythm and blues. Yet there was something peculiar about all this great potential for private space. Whenever I went to my room and closed the door, it seemed to drive my parents crazy. They became the Spanish inquisition seeking the heretic to be questioned for his violations of God’s law. At any and all times closed doors made my parents suspicious. What are you doing in there? Why do you have that door shut? They claimed having the door open helped the heat circulate or in summer, it let the air circulate. Whatever it took to keep that door open, they proclaimed it. This was like a suspicion of toddler activities, except I was twelve or thirteen, and had long ago stopped eating crayons or drawing on walls. I think it all came down to what I might do behind closed doors. It was fear of violating another of God’s laws; the activity that shall not be named. And so my first big chance at privacy or time to be alone with my thoughts and reflections was stifled by my parents. Ever since I have revered that time alone to discover the final truth and honesty of my life that Emerson says must be found in privacy. And I fear the amount of privacy we have all lost, especially in an ever-evolving electronic culture.
This was recently highlighted in a New Yorker article in the context of bullying incidents of young gay and lesbian individuals. I was especially disturbed when I read about the Rutgers student who committed suicide following the You Tube posting of an intimate encounter of him with another man. His roommate was the perpetrator of the filming and posting. Naturally, this public exposure led to humiliation and shame, and then ultimately the suicide. Yet the New Yorker column suggests that this was not so much a new wave of homophobic violence, but rather a terrible violation of privacy. With so much of people’s lives out on the web to be examined by all, we must ask, have we lost all sense of affirming the private life? The article reminds us of what we already know about bullying feeding off of anger, fear, revenge and weakness, but it also points to the systematic undervaluing of privacy in all our lives. All of us need to discover our sense of identity and desires in private places where no one else, and certainly not a prying public, can view or learn what we are reflecting upon or even experimenting with. This becomes especially difficult if your sexual preference or identity differs from the accepted norm of society. In this case a young man was in the private intimate company of another person asking those same questions we all do – who do I want to be with, what helps make me be myself, and in whose company do I feel most alive? Now what if that deepest self-examination were suddenly filmed or tweeted or blogged all over the place? Do we want everything in our lives observed, when the unobserved portions are perhaps the deepest and most meaningful of all?
Some of this may sound like a familiar diatribe from me. I still do not own a cell phone, and have expressed my prejudicial crankiness over those who fail to greet me on the street, or nearly crash into my car, or narrate every minute detail of last night’s date all because they are talking on their cell phones. I did not want to learn from a perfect stranger on the bus that he is not going to let her control him any more. My concern is that we spend all too much time narrating what we are doing on phones, blogs, Facebook and elsewhere, and not enough time on cultivating the private life. Perhaps this obsession with narrating our lives comes from a fear of being alone, or fear of silence, or fear of facing life’s most difficult questions. While we constantly exchange information, there is less real intimacy. Some of this focus devolves from the proliferation of memoirs in our literature. People seem to want to know all the sordid private details of the lives of the rich and famous. These kinds of celebrity exposures play into a culture where we make the individual the center of attention. We may do this with an extreme focus on over scheduling, over managing, and even over protecting our children. When this happens, as it did in my case, our private time to reflect on who we are, or what we believe in most deeply is eroded.
What is true about these endless published narrations of private lives is that they come from a tradition where Protestants were encouraged to make a narrow examination of their lives to see if they were on the right course. Some of the most popular memoirs of colonial times were those fashioned by people who were taken captive by Native Americans, and lived and returned to tell the tale. Their lives often became inspirations for wider audiences, even though they also fulfilled an old tradition where the writer described a private conversation between the self and God about the truthfulness of faith. One problem for Protestants is that these times of private reflection were often associated with painful phases of contrition and conviction, or the dark night of the soul. The convert had to reflect upon the depth of their sin or pain in order to find God on the path to salvation, and so usually phrases like “under great distress of mind,” were told by prospective church members. My parents always said that Catholics had an easy way out with a quick absolution of sin, while we Protestants continued to suffer. I am not sure if that is the case, but it is true that embracing all the misgivings and questions we have is painful and traumatizing to the soul, and we need to feel acceptance, forgiveness and love.
What liberals worried about was that all this emotion connected with religious conversion could be self-delusion. There is nothing worse Hosea Ballou was once told than “walking in the imagination of your heart.” Historically liberals have said we should be cautious of quick, public conversions, but rather that salvation for us truly comes through a slow steady development of character. We usually think of liberals expressing their faith through action in the world by having compassion for others and treating them with dignity and respect. But even with this public faith of action, we need private times to continue to reflect on whether this faith is imaginary or a true reflection of what you and I feel our faith demands from us. Do we express our faith in ways that bring recognition to us, as a means of public show, or is it reflective of private introspection? In Christian tradition Jesus makes an important distinction when he says that much public prayer is for show, and that when you pray you need to go into a private space, into a room where you shut the door, and you can be alone with God. This is the passage in the Gospel of Matthew where the Lord’s Prayer is then introduced. The passage about the hypocritical nature of narrating your personal piety just to be seen seems strangely modern in the context of revealing the private life in a very public way.
The idea that privacy is sacred can be seen from ancient texts. Most of us know the story of Noah’s Ark. Following the flood Noah becomes the first to conceive of a vineyard, but winemakers can fall under the influence of the fruit of their laborers. Noah became drunk and passed out in his tent. Ham sees him naked in the tent. Some would say he violates him, but in any case, he violates his father’s privacy, and ends up being cursed by Noah. This curse was often interpreted as falling on the sons of Ham, or the Canaanites who were condemned to a life of slavery, serving the descendants of the other brothers. So the story tells us how fundamentally important keeping one’s privacy is. That we have a right to personal sovereignty over our own bodies can be deduced from this passage. The two passages together teach us that making private acts public, and invading privacy violate human dignity and worth.
Modern life teaches us that there is much confusion over public and private lives. While cell phones have made us all privy to the details of others lives, the Internet has given us the option of everyone voicing their opinion about everything. Every private thought can now be made public. Even as I wrote this sermon, I was reading in Friday’s Globe about those people who had written negative reviews of one of the all time great children’s classics Good Night Moon. This democratization of expressing every private thought, or memoirs for the masses, does not mean we should follow endless personal revelations. The outpouring of narratives and opinions and blogs means we all want to be heard. What we know is that we have partial truths from many people, but some are self-serving, and there for show. This public life of privacy means that it is all the more necessary for each of us to cultivate a private life.
Much privacy has been given up in the last decade, not merely because of electronic advances. The attacks of September 11 brought all kinds of calls for greater surveillance, facial recognition devices, national IDs, removing shoes at airports and much more. More people are employed at keeping track of more people than ever before. We have given up privacy in many of these instances for safety, or at least the façade of safety rather than the actual fact. The Internet that we all prize so much has become an easy tool to put us all under federal surveillance. So when you borrow a book from the local library, you may well be placing yourself under scrutiny. I am in favor of having criminal records checks for people who work with children at First Parish, but I am also wary of the results of these kinds of invasion into our privacy. Out of the blue one day I received a letter from the Federal government listing every single person nationwide named Mark Harris who was some kind of sex offender. They had not stolen my social security number, or other ID, but we shared the same name, and so I was linked to them. I was unclear what the letter meant. I guess it was to warn me in case I was one day mistaken for one of the other Mark Harris’s. If we in this age of terror have a difficult time challenging law enforcement actions, then we must be wary for democracy. As Wendy Kaminer writes, the actions of the government are suppose to be public so we can hold them accountable, and in fact, so that the actions of private citizens can be kept private.
Nearly three quarters of a century ago, there was a famous privacy case involving William Sidis. He was a boy genius who could read and write French and English before the age of five, wrote a treatise on anatomy, and went to college at age nine. He received national press coverage, but then after finishing college, refused to follow the plan for his life that his father had mapped out. He left graduate school, abandoned academia, rejected his family, and took up one menial job after another. This boy prodigy was later exposed in an article in the New Yorker. His story became a kind of warning about the downfall of the famous, and a lesson in not pushing your kids too hard. Wanting to live in obscurity, he felt exposed and ridiculed, and consequently sued for the invasion of privacy. He lost, based partly on the ruling that a famous person has fewer claims to privacy than others. I have a profession where the dividing line between private and public is sometimes blurred. Parts of clergy’s private lives often undergo scrutiny before the congregation. It goes with the territory of taking on a position where we must lead by the example of our life. The modern term is modeling, but it still reflects that people want to see how that inner sanctum of religious fidelity is embodied in life.
Preaching in fact reflects the desire and need to bring truth to life. I must use the example of my life – my loves, my passions, my identity as a person who longs for a more compassionate and just world, and use those lived experiences I have, and translate them into truth for all of us to learn from. Like Jesus ideas about prayer, public and private walk a tight rope between the public show of look at me, and the private reflections of wrestling with anguish and pain that may be mine, but also reflect the truth that all of you have painful issues to wrestle with every day of your lives. Am I sick? Am I loved? Am I worthy? Privacy is complicated. As religious liberals, we must fight for it in the public sphere, and have generally done so, especially in the case of affirming abortion rights. And yet sometimes with mental illness, or other afflictions, privacy may prevent us from helping our own children once they become adult. Judge Louis Brandeis once said, “Privacy is the right to be alone–the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized man.” I believe we must value both the beauty and the right of privacy once again before it erodes more deeply in our society and in our lives. Too often the public controls the private, or as Thoreau put it, “We do not ride upon the railroad; it rides upon us.” On Thursday night I went to see a movie called “Thy Will Be Done.” It is the story of Transgender Sara Herwig’s painful journey to become an ordained minister. Herwig was present for the showing. The pain of her private life as a child, and as a married man was terrible. So much was secret. Part of her journey was understanding and affirming the truth of who she was. That was private because it was an identity that often cannot be public either in our society or in our churches, even though we preach a God who loves all. But her journey was also private because she needed time and space to be alone. She needed her private life to discern the truth about herself. We all do. Thoreau writes: “Every man (and woman) is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.” Every one of us must embrace the private life – not to do this or that–to spend or be spent, but to be alone, in that private confessional, contemplative, or revelatory space, to know once again poetry and legend, love and laughter, to “keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.”
Closing Words from Geoffrey Fisher, former Archbishop of Canterbury
“There is a sacred realm of privacy for every man and woman where he makes his choices and decisions-a realm of his own essential rights and liberties into which the law (the state, the church), generally speaking, must not intrude.”
“Chasing Death” by Mark W. Harris
October 31, 2010 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from May Sarton
I would like to believe when I die that I have given myself away like a tree that sows seeds every spring and never counts the loss, because it is not loss, it is adding to future life. It is the tree’s way of being. Strongly rooted, perhaps, but spilling out its treasure on the wind.
Responsive Reading #538 “Harbingers of Frost” by Robert T. Weston
Reading – from no death, no fear by Thich Nhat Hanh
Sermon – “Chasing Death” by Mark W. Harris
There was an article in the Boston Globe on Thursday about a method of earlier detection for pancreatic cancer. I always take note of such stories and read them thoroughly. My mother died of this type of cancer when she was 70, living only eighteen months after diagnosis. Her mother also died of cancer of the pancreas when she was only 53. I never met her, as my mother was pregnant with me when her mother’s death occurred. Once a few years back, my own doctor told me that there was no genetic predilection for this recurring in the same family like this. I received some relief from his words, as otherwise it might have felt like some impending affliction for either me or one of my siblings. Yet it still seemed significant to me that both mother and daughter had died of the same disease. Certainly when a father has prostate cancer as mine did, or especially if a mother has breast cancer, then we often feel as though the sword of Damocles hangs over our heads for that future day when the major disease or illness will come calling. I often morbidly jest that in my family we get cancer, but not heart disease.
There is an underlying presumption that killer diseases like pancreatic cancer must be battled with every last fiber of our being. We treat these diseases as an outside attack on our bodies, and as a result, modern medicine usually goes into war mode in order to save our lives. Yet sometimes those treatments seem to feel like they are killing us quicker than the disease. One of the crucial questions about the end of life, is when do we stop trying to save the person, and simply let them go. This is also a fundamental problem with health care costs, as such a high percentage of our expenses go into those final days when the chance of survival are long gone, and we should focus more on making our loved ones comfortable.
One of the problems is that we treat illness, and even death as something to be conquered. There is a presumption in the culture that it is not normal to one day get sick and die, and so we often don’t talk about these things, or we mask them in myriad ways. Andrea’s brother-in-law has recently been hospitalized due to a recurrence of throat and tongue cancer. He had major surgery, and mostly was not feeling up to having visitors. Finally, when Andrea went in this week, I think he felt some relief because he was worried that if he had visitors they would be repulsed by how he looked or ask too many questions, and her visit was a success because, as he said, “it was just normal.” They could just sit and talk without any kind of overriding judgment or upsetting response. While it may be difficult to be normal in these circumstances because body and soul are going through such trauma and change, I think we all want to hold on to our normal relationships and life as much as possible. Some years ago when I visited my brother when he had his throat surgery, we joked how he looked like Frankenstein, and was ready for Halloween, but the banter was a relief because I was not scared of how he looked, and thus he did not have to fear what others thought. He could just be himself.
Having our own way in responding to illness and death becomes an important theme at the end of the novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall won the Man Booker prize last year, and is wonderfully written historical fiction that focuses on the life of Thomas Cromwell, who was one of King Henry VIII’s chief ministers. It is a revisionist interpretation because Cromwell, who is often described in the history books as an unscrupulous politician, here is seen as tolerant and humane, and Sir Thomas More, whose integrity has usually been celebrated in such plays and movies as A Man for All Seasons, comes across as the vicious, revenge filled tormentor of heretics. Cromwell recalls a story of his youth when he was with his father’s apprentice who was making nails from a scrap pile. These were “just common old flat-heads, he’d said, for fastening coffin lids. The nail rods glowed in the fire, a lively orange. “What for do we nail down the dead?” The apprentice responded: “It’s so the horrible old buggers don’t spring out and chase us.” The author writes that Cromwell, “knows different now.” It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives. More apparently had spread a false rumor that a Protestant heretic named Bilney had recanted at the stake. Cromwell comments: “It wasn’t enough for him to take Bilney’s life away; he had to take his death, too.” Perhaps this is the central concern for us. We chase death down to capture and control and eliminate it. We don’t so much rewrite the lives of those who are dying, but we do take death away from them and us, as something alien and apart from our living when it should be the natural end, even the crowning glory. It should just be normal.
Time is often a consideration when we think about death. While we may be chasing death our whole lives, we are usually focused on how fast we can run to get away. We count our years and want to add to our time, and so while my mother died at age 70, and that was once considered old, we now think of 70 as young, a new middle age even, and that becomes especially true as we approach it. If a young person is killed or has to fight a serious illness, we may think how unfair life is that this could befall him/her at such a young age. That is true. But what is young? We may continue to think we didn’t deserve such a fate no matter what our age. We may say I want to live to see my grandchildren grow up, or to get to do that grand trip I dreamed about, or see my retirement home built, and sure that would be wonderful to get to do these things, but there are always unfinished dreams and tasks that will elude us. Think of the Biblical story of Moses. He dies before he gets to the promised land, even as he is just able to see it from the mountain top. Did he free his people from slavery in order to get this as a reward? He fights with God, and says how unjust it is that he cannot go with his people. He wonders how God could do this to him, but finally, he quits rebelling against his fate, and accepts his death as the end of his life of 120 years. See you knew 70 was young! Of course the point is that we cannot determine the perfect time to die. Projects won’t be finished. We can only fight so long. It hurts to let go of all we hold dear. Then in the end, we find we will see how much we have already been given that we did not deserve at all. This wonderful, amazing, miraculous gift of life, with the covenant from the beginning – it will end. And so if we don’t really know our time, then we must ask how am I living right now? This could be my final moment.
This becomes clearer to us as we age. The Dalai Lama, who is now 75, meditates on death every day. The loss of my parents many years ago now, accelerated my own contemplation of the end of my life. Then there was a near fatal accident for me, and more recently contemporaries beginning to die, and it becomes all the more real. When I wake in the night, again due to aging, I think more and more of my own end. The body is a regular reminder of natural developments that signal the demise of youth. The poet Dylan Thomas once wrote that we must rage, rage against the dying of the light, and not go gentle into that goodnight. Raging has its time, and so we fight to keep the body in some semblance of shape, and as the teeth fall out, as mine seem to with frightening regularity, we work harder to maintain health, and we adapt, so that we might enjoy living that much longer. Aches and pains of arthritis afflict us all, so we exercise to loosen muscle and bones that now seem more resistant to stretch, and we also learn to live with some degree of pain. We expect in the morning to have bones that echo the snap, crackle pop that should be coming from the cereal bowl, and muscles that behave like molasses, or motor oil when it is thirty below. We all find ways to fight the infirmities of aging. But we also know we can only stem the time and tide of aging for so long. So I notice the reminders, and fight the dying light.
Part of that fight may be because we don’t want to think about death. The thought brings fear – fear of pain, fear of being alone, and fear of what happens to us. When I mention this sermon topic, people sometimes react, “Oh that should be a real draw.” Woody Allen says, I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Of course the point of worship is not entertainment, or even thinking about important issues, but moreover celebrating the mystery of life. There is no greater mystery than what happens to us when we die. Many religions have formulated answers for what happens at the end. Time is also a consideration here, because it seems likely that to exist in time, we must be mortal, for immortality is endless. Where would we be without time? Some Unitarian Universalists believe in a life after death, some believe in reincarnation, and many feel that death is the end of all personal existence. At various times in my life I have held all of these positions, but what I know fundamentally is that death will bring a tremendous change, and mostly we push it aside, which is why we often use every medical option available to us. But most of us, when the time comes, would probably prefer to go gentle into that good night. One thing that will help us do that is to think about the end of our lives right now. Let others know in writing if you want aggressive medical treatments or intravenous feeding or not if you become seriously ill. There are no rules to follow because every end of life is different and uniquely yours, but because everyone has fears about death, an acceptance of our own mortality, and talking about it will help others work through this process.
The religious festivals that are commemorated at this time of year help bring to mind all those great souls who have lived out their days with devotion, dedication, courage and good works. This includes all those who we bring to mind that have parented and loved and taught us whose faces are still bright in our minds eye, but also those who stretch back over the centuries and contrbuted greatly to the building of the fabric of village and community life all over the world as they tilled the fields, scoured the mines, raised the children, painted the beauty and tragedy they behld, and molded the jars that contained their harvest, or the water that gave them life. Though the names may be lost, the life was bestowed that others might live. I have personally had the privilege of helping more than 150 families mourn the death and celebrate the life of their loved one. Each of these lives echoes the Biblical passage from Timothy that is frequently used at such services: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”
In the Jewish tradition, the Kaddish is the mourner’s prayer, but the entire prayer only praises God, and does not memorialize the dead. Rabbi Irwin Kula in his book Yearnings suggests that this is because the world, our world is torn asunder by death, and the prayer goes out not to God, but for God, so that meaning can be brought back to life because this death has taken it away. God needs to be put back together, because the loss is so great. Death always diminishes life. It is also a prayer to help the people who have suffered loss to figure out what their relationship to the deceased is going to be. The person is gone, but we are still here, and thus the relationship is still here. How are we related to them now? There is also a practice of placing rocks on a monument. I see this especially when I give tours at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Graves like those of Julia Ward Howe will have little cairns built on top. These rocks tells of us the enduring memory of these people, like a mountain, but rocks also tells us that the loss of a person is a big weight to endure, a heavy loss, not only telling us of the weight of their contribution to the world, but the heaviness we feel at the loss.
If death takes away life, it is also what allows life to continue. Evolution has given us bodies that are suppose to get us to reproductive age, and not much beyond. The first half of life is orderly and follows a pattern, but afterwards is disorderly and unpredictable. Most of us are now in that evolutionary crap shoot stage, and can feel it with random aches and pains. “We get old,” Jonathan Weiner says, “because our ancestors died young.” Many would say my parents died young. Even though it is has been many years since they died, every day brings a new memory of my life with them. If I play ball with Asher, I recall playing ball with my Dad. If my shoulder hurts, I remember my father suffering with terrible arthritis at the age I am now. Each daily experience comes forth in light of those experiences from the days we shared. Those we have lost to death come alive in our thoughts, our own teachings of others, in the places we go and things we do. We come to see that the relationship does not die, but forms a new pattern in our lives. And with forgiveness, and with our own learnings about life, we come to let go of their failings – how they hurt us or embarrassed us or neglected us, and let the love we experienced live on in us, for as the scriptures teach, “love [is] strong as death.”
Each of us can come to chase death, not by conquering it, but by letting it be ours. “I am not ready to die,” says poet May Sarton, “But I am learning to trust death, As I have trusted life.,I am moving,Toward a new freedom, Born of detachment, And a sweeter grace, Learning to let go.”
With our mortality, death is our individual and communal inheritance. It comes to us all as the great equalizer. It is a reality that is hard to face, but when we see it as normal, as something to be accepted and even prepared for, then we can come to trust its presence in our lives, and even live more fully because we will see the normalcy and gentleness of that good night, and as medical questions come to us, we will balance the fight with a welcome acceptance of its universal embrace. Time makes us ponder how much life we will have, where and when we find meaning, and the ultimate mystery of life that we can only partly glimpse, but never know. We don’t know if there is life after death, but the true comfort may come from the knowledge that we do know that there is love after death. For the love we give to others is an immortality that surely lives on after death. What you gave to another will reverberate down through the ages – in a written or spoken word, in a family, in an institution, in a school, in a faith tradition. Love that was true yesterday will still be true tomorrow. The Buddha teaches that to say that something exists or not is wrong. We can make love manifest even if the person is gone. Surely love cannot be destroyed. A life that accepts death as true and ever present reconciles us with our common losses, and makes us more understanding of one another. We are held in a common container called life and death, and whichever side of the vessel we are on, there is love holding it together in truth and companionship and hope. Our common destiny brings us together in the memory of all souls, the loving power that upholds all life.
Closing Words – from Nancy Wood
A long time I have lived with you
And now we must be going
Separately to be together.
Perhaps I shall be the wind.
To blur your smooth waters
So that you do not see your face too much.
Perhaps I shall be the star
To guide your uncertain wings
So that you have direction in the night.
Perhaps I shall be the fire
To separate your thoughts
So that you do not give up.
Perhaps I shall be the rain
To open up the earth
So that your seed may fall.
Perhaps I shall be the snow
To let your blossoms sleep
So that you may bloom in spring.
Perhaps I shall be the stream
To play a song on the rock
So that you are not alone.
Perhaps I shall be a new mountain
So that you always have a home.