“Number My Days” by Mark W. Harris
December 16, 2012 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Call to Worship – from Marcel Proust
Come now . . . Were everything clear, all would seem to you vain. Your boredom would populate a shadowless universe with an impassive life made up of unleavened souls. But a measure of disquiet is a divine gift. The hope, which, in your eyes, shines on a dark threshold, does not have its basis in an overly certain world.
From Job 38
“Bone” by Mary Oliver 1.
Understand, I am always trying to figure out
what the soul is,
and where hidden,
and what shape –
and so, last week,
when I found on the beach
the ear bone
of a pilot whale that may have died
hundreds of years ago, I thought
maybe I was close
to discovering something –
for the ear bone
is the portion that lasts longest
in any of us, man or whale; shaped
like a squat spoon
with a pink scoop where
once, in the lively swimmer’s head,
it joined its two sisters
in the house of hearing,
it was only
two inches long –
and thought: the soul
might be like this –
so hard, so necessary –
yet almost nothing.
the gray sea
was opening and shutting its wave-doors,
unfolding over and over
its time-ridiculing roar;
I looked but I couldn’t see anything
through its dark-knit glare;
yet don’t we all know, the golden sand
is there at the bottom,
though our eyes have never seen it,
nor can our hands ever catch it
lest we would sift it down
into fractions, and facts –
and what the soul is, also
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on,
through the pale-pink morning light.
~ Mary Oliver ~
Sermon – “Number My Days”
On the night that Andrea went into labor with Levi, we had a difference of opinion. I don’t want to call it a fight because like most couples, we never argue. She awoke in the middle of the night feeling frequent and intense contractions. I am the kind of guy who tends to go by the book. Andrea explained to me what she was feeling, and I failed to listen and believe her. I thought this could not be happening so quickly because it was not what it said in the book. I then turned to the Birth Bible, What To Expect When Your Expecting to find out what the gospel said. I read that early labor begins with contractions that are fairly infrequent in terms of occurrence and intensity, and will then become more active as time goes by before the mother transitions to the next stage of labor. Since the book informed me that it was impossible for this to be happening, I thought that perhaps we should wait before heading to the hospital. Andrea, however, knew what she was feeling, and could have easily screamed, “you idiot, go start the car.” Instead she calmly informed me that we would be leaving immediately for the hospital, as there were no more minutes to wait before this baby was born.
All the facts about the length of labor and how slowly things unfold were thrown out the window. A good lesson to remember: listen to what the person is saying and don’t quote the answer you want to hear.
Everything is supposed to happen according to plan, right? It sure seemed that way at Christmas time. As a child of upper middle class parents. I wrote to Santa, asking for the baseball glove, the ice skates, the picture book about the Civil War, and received exactly what I wanted. It all worked out. Ask and ye shall receive. But these gifts were really diversions from life. I quickly learned that I was not going to be immortal. That wonderful grandmother who came to live at our house and played endless hours of scrabble with me was not going to live much longer. And that professional baseball career just wasn’t in the cards. After all my eyesight was getting worse. I learned I wasn’t going to be able to control my life, and that death brought sadness and grief, and I had limited talents to achieve my dreams, and so would be subject to disappointment and failure. Life was not scripted, and in fact, I would learn some wisdom by realizing that even though there were times of darkness, all the lights in my life would not go out. Even though there were losses, I could reach out to other family members and make new friends. Even though there were failures, I could try new things and make the best use of my talents and skills.
Gertrude Stein once said, “counting is the religion of this generation. It is its hope and its salvation.” Counting is going by the book. It is a way of blindly accepting statistics without paying attention to what is happening in front of you. It was me saying you cannot be having those rapid contractions, it is too soon. Think about these crazy birth stories that the Bible provides as fodder for the mythic tale of Christmas. In Luke, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, is told that she is pregnant, even though she has never had a baby, and she and her husband are really old. Zechariah is so devoted to the biological facts that the angel renders him unable to speak because he will not believe this insane idea that his wife is pregnant. Then Mary herself becomes pregnant, but she has never had sex before, a true test for our OWL class to prove the virility of the holy spirit. Mary decides not to protest, and tells God, let it be. I am going to go with the flow.
Mostly we find it hard to go with the flow. We want to know for sure, and so we live and die by numbers. If you are a baseball fan you are subject to the science of saber metrics. This is the new school that suggests you can prove the worth of a player based on the minutiae of statistics. Once upon a time we judged greatness by a .300 average for a hitter and a pitcher allowing fewer than 3 earned runs per nine innings. Now we think we can judge performance and contributions to a team from a statistical average. We have OBS, and OBP for hitters or OOOS for pitchers. I become dizzy with numbers that may not prove anything, or especially be a predictor of how someone will do in the future. Even if greatness seems predictable, that injury, the psychological loss of intensity and drive, a different environment or even that one opportunity to make the great catch or big hit that results in the sun in your eyes, all may mean failure. We think we can judge teacher performance based on how well their students perform on tests, or a minister on how much a congregation grows. But there are too many variables to think we can predict success with any kind accuracy.
A traditionalist would base his assessment on feeling. It is time to have this baby. If I had tried to follow the book, then we might have had that baby along the side of the road on Mt. Auburn Street. Yet the desire to know or to be sure can easily convince us to follow the numbers. There is no greater sense of uncertainty than what we all feel about the financial well being of the country and by extension, ourselves. While media types write about going off the financial cliff, politicians swagger with a pompous arrogance and we quake not knowing if retirement will be put off for another five years. There was a recent advertisement in the New Yorker by a wealth management company that reads: No Risk? Know Risk. The message is that there is no way to avoid risk. In fact the company says that financial risks in investing are inevitable, and that today it is even harder to predict those risks, but that they can help you analyze those risks and navigate them to a successful future.
Know those risks. Well, in fact, most of us do. I know one of the reasons I love information or predictability is that it brings order to my otherwise uncertain world. Just this week I was driving back from a luncheon appointment in Arlington. I was sitting in traffic in Belmont Center when suddenly an auto parts company truck slammed into my rear bumper. I was startled and upset, but unhurt, and could find few dents in my otherwise beat up station wagon. The other driver immediately said, I am completely at fault. Yet the crash altered my day, and could have injured me or damaged my car. Who could have predicted such an event? He said it was his first accident in 40 years. Anyone of us can experience equipment failure, snow or ice on the road, or the other driver who makes a careless mistake. Perhaps we never asked that life would be perfect but we do expect people will drive carefully, not shoot others with guns in shopping malls or elementary schools, not sexually abuse children, and elect responsible leaders. So we try to protect our children by being more alert to predators. We try to once again institute gun laws to stem the tide of violence. We try to slow down our lives, and encourage others to do the same. And we work for peace, or pray for peace, or just try to be peaceful among our circle of friends, and light our own candle of hope in a world that is often uncertain, with moments of darkness and pain.
The timeless story from the book of Job is a reminder that the righteous and innocent will not be rewarded with the perfect life. This is what Job protests when all that he cherishes is destroyed, and he reiterates that he is a blameless man. He did nothing to deserve this. The passage from which I read is not meant to teach him the scientific facts, about snow and ice, but to know the greatness of God, or perhaps more relevant in this case, the unpredictable power of the forces of life. God is reminding him that he cannot explain snow and hail, and that human beings do not have power over the origins and destinations of things they cannot explain. Our Biblical birth story ends with the slaughter of the innocents, so much a symbolic reminder of what occurred with this senseless school shooting in Connecticut. The one new baby is born to give hope, even a small sliver of hope in the midst a terrible situation where so many innocents or mere babies have been killed because someone suffers from an unresolved trauma, or it is some vengeful, or power hungry ruler who fears the disruption of his control of others. How do we dream of new life, or new hope in a world where death and killing, poverty and hunger are so rampant?
In this unpredictable world, where do we find our new life, or our hope waiting to be born? We all want certainty whether it is being sure our children are safe at school, or that our money will grow enough so that we can retire. When we are preparing to have a baby, we know that it is a nine-month period filled with uncertainty. Last year my son and his wife lost a baby in utero. One can have test after test, and read book after book, or go to web site after web site, and not know why. Often information can lead to too much knowledge. We become paranoid. We make it worse than it is. We can always imagine everything that can go wrong, and this is even truer after they are born. None us knows the outcome of any trip we make. We may help ourselves by making a schedule or planning stops along the way, but every step can be fraught with a new development. We yearn for certainty because life itself is so uncertain. We want to know so badly, but to ensure our rate of success we may end up overanalyzing, when we really cannot know what is going to happen.
A fear of failure can paralyze us from doing anything, but doubt about what is going to happen has to be part of any journey. Doubt can lead to uncertainty and anxiety, but it can also be a stimulating power that leads to growth and opportunity
One thing that is true is that even sure things are leaps into the unknown. We know the terrible side of this. A Sunday morning service or a typical day at school can be interrupted by the gunfire of a disturbed person. Once a tragedy occurs we can show our strength and empathy by renewing our claims of love and support for others, or by making plans in our own community to prevent tragedies from occurring. Tragedies do occur and we may make personal leaps of faith in response by reaching out to others. Those sure things that are leaps into the unknown may be the everyday commute to work or the trip to the grocery store that do not end in tragedy or mishap. We forget that these are sometimes gifts of opportunity where, because of construction we go down a road we never travel in our usual routine, and we end up seeing the house of our dreams, or meet a person who wants to work where you do, and she becomes the love of your life. In effect, all our choices, become leaps into tomorrow, with opportunities for dreams to experience someone or something anew.
A second thing that is true is that we are always acting without knowing the results. Many years ago I agreed to write an historical dictionary of Unitarian Univsalism. At the time I was on the board of the UU Historical Society, and an invitation from the publisher came to us. A colleague said none of us should take on the project because there was too much prelinary research that had not been done. Because he was saying that countless articles and decades of research had to be done, it amounted to a denial that such a project could ever be done. He said forget about it, and I would be a fool if I said yes. Well, thanks to Andrea, I decided to become that fool, and ten years after the invitation, the book was published. Now I am working on a second edition. If we predict something can’t be done, then it will never be done. We can gather as much information as possible about any project, and perform due diligence to try to ensure positive results, but at some point we must make the leap into doing a project, or we will certainly ensure its failure, since we never tried in the first place.
A third aspect of not knowing is that even though we take a path, we must always leap again. Coming up with problems or finding more questions can prevent a project from happening in the first place, but we also must realize that any leap of faith we make will also mean that further paths will have to be taken along the way. We may take the road, like my son, to open one restaurant, but then we may be challenged to try yet another. One project may open new avenues, new books, and new jobs. Yet it is always a risk. Maybe the result is not what we wanted. Or perhaps some part of it is a failure. We realize that no decision is final. Anything we do is temporary, and new decisions will have to be made. This also helps us understand those who make different decisions in their lives.
It is clear in the last generation that religious fundamentalism has risen because of great uncertainty in the world with irrefutable answers put forth in response to this unrest in our lives and in the world. On the other hand, I believe our obsession with scientific answers, and medical truths serves this same human need. We are so uncertain about government, finances, jobs, and the safety of children that we try to provide certain answers to quell our fears. After events like the one in Newtown, we want to do everything to keep our children safe. We become afraid and anxious. We cannot imagine the pain those parents feel, and our hearts go out to them. I would not argue with the need for planning, but we sometimes do so with the unspoken hope that this will make us immune from uncertainty, or from knowing that everything will be all right. The simple message to Job is that he cannot know what will befall him in an unpredictable life. He is not God.
So the final thing that is clear is that we don’t have all the answers. What we try to do is find the right path and do the right thing on that path when we are there. What is the human need in this moment? With Andrea the right path was not tell her some absolute answer from a book, but to listen to what she needed, and trust her to know what was right for her and our baby. We may want to know this is exactly what is going to happen, but we can’t know. We may try to ask a doctor how soon our loved one is going to die, but we cannot say. My wife’s brother in law was dying last spring, but he was strong, and no answer could be made. He died when he was ready. And no amount of predictable information could change that. How do we listen and respond to the other, and not always try to provide the right answer?
We do not have the certainty of final answers. But we do have the certainty of our own capabilities. Jesus is not going to save us, but his teachings help us to know that we can be more understanding towards others. The Bible does not give us gospel truths to mouth to others, but we can find teachings that will instruct us to build stronger communities where equality and justice are valued and made manifest in the world. There is not one truth that comes from on high, but rather the many truths we share with each other to build insights into creating a more compassionate world. Mary Oliver exhibits our certainty in the words of the poem “Bone.” We only play at the edges of knowing our own souls, and especially at times of tragedy, it may seem small and capable of evil.
We never really arrive at full knowledge, for we are not Gods, as Job knew. Yet Oliver reminds us, “I know our part is not knowing, but looking, and touching, and loving.” We feel the pain of loss, but we also know the depth of love. That is the call of our community not to know the answers with certainty, but to find certainty in the love we express, the help we give, the community of joy and support we build. Certainty will not come in answers we give that this is true or that is eternal, but that, despite our tragedies and failures, we have a faith in each other to find hope in tomorrow. Christmas and Hanukkah both remind us that there is darkness all around, but we can always remind each other that together we can start a fire in dark times or we can light the lamps of hope when innocents are killed. May we each kindle a flame in our hearts, touching the soul of love and compassion that dwells there, and share that warmth of heart with a grieving world.
Closing Words – from Franz Kafka
If we knew we were on the right road, having to leave it would mean endless despair. But we are on a road that only leads to a second one and then to a third one and so forth. And the real highway will be sighted for a long, long time, perhaps never. So we drift in doubt. But also in an unbelievable beautiful diversity. Thus the accomplishment of hopes remains an always-unexpected miracle. But in compensation, the miracle remains forever possible.
“Where Do Prayers Go?” By Mark W. Harris
December 9, 2012 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – “Signature” by Jacob Trapp
We awaken to the sun’s glory, praising You in the morning.
You are the blue dome above, the limitless sky beyond.
You are the warmth that embraces mother earth, the rain that quenches her thirst and gives renewal of life to all her children.
You are the brightness of sunlit leaves, the shade under a cool canopy of trees, the congregation of great rocks, giving strength, among which we stand steadfast.
You are the stillness in the mountain, the corresponding stillness in us deeper than all stirrings of self.
You are the mesas and cliffs from which birds dart down and sing.
You are the wings, the singer, and the song.
You are the listening world.
Your signature is the beauty of things.
Readings: I Samuel I:1-20
“I Happen To Be Standing” by~ Mary Oliver
I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.
While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why. And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.
The idea for this sermon came from a conversation I had with First Parish member Bobbie Brown about a lecture she heard at the Museum of Fine Arts by poet Mary Oliver. While we were talking, Bobbie repeated the opening line to the poem I read today, “I Happen to Be Standing.” That line is “Where Do Prayers Go?” It intrigued me because I have been thinking for some time about our Joys and Sorrows portion of the service. This is not specifically because there has been concern about the length of the sharing or even the appropriateness of some of the content, but moreover, what exactly we think we are doing when we share and then light this candle in a Unitarian Universalist sanctuary. It reminds me of another line that intrigued me, and inspired a sermon. Julian Barnes said, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” It is like saying this about prayer: “It is nonsense to think that it does any good, but it sure would be nice if it were true.” Remember that old Dionne Warwick song, “Wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin?’” It is all right there in those four words, and if you show him you care, Warwick sings, he will be yours. Some of us might say, we know how well that works!
Every Sunday morning we see people come to the little box and light a candle. It is not dissimilar from those votive candles that are all lined up in Catholic sanctuaries around the world. At the end of the summer my family walked through the dimly lit St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City, where there are banks of deep red glass votives with people from all walks of life, perhaps the descendants of the Irish, Italians, Spanish and Chinese who helped build the city, silently lighting them to pray for their loved ones who are dead, ill or in crisis, or even to pray for themselves asking, what am I going to do?. And where were these random thoughts or rote phrases of petition or gratitude going? When I was a child I think I imagined this gigantic ear in the sky, sort of like a cloud that could open up and absorb all my desires and my anguish, and give me all I wanted or make it all better in one fell swoop. I suppose I thought it was God, and it didn’t matter if I was one little eight year old, and there were millions of other kids who also wanted every comic book in the world, a father who didn’t fly into rages, and classmates who weren’t so mean. Why would he listen to my prayers? There must have been so many, sort of like that endless inbox on the email where it just keeps rising 300 unread, 400, 500. There are not hours in the day to seriously read about every need in the world that I could help solve by making a donation, or signing a petition.
So at some point, maybe after the Russian Cosmonaut said he had traveled through space, and did not see any God up there, I also decided that there was no giant hearing device in the great beyond to hear and then act upon every single prayer that each human on earth uttered. So if God is not hearing these prayers, where do they go anyway? Between the unlikelihood of God having a physical location where he could hear me, and the apparent general lack of response to my petitions, I gave up on what I thought of as prayer for a long time. It wasn’t until I was in seminary that I began to seriously consider what prayer meant. UU churches had an element in their services that was called prayer, or meditation, for the humanists. But a generation ago the idea of lighting a candle in a UU church and publicly sharing feelings, such as, please pray for my sick friend, or rejoice with me on my Dad’s 70th birthday, or I am struggling right now and I need your support, was simply out of the question. While it may seem like second nature to us now to be lighting candles, a rational UU would have said what is this hocus pocus, quasi Catholic stuff? Do you think the smoke from this candle is going to fill God’s nostrils, and suddenly give you relief or resolution or reconciliation from your emotional ordeal. What do you think you are doing? Where do prayers go?
There is an interesting story about prayer from the book of I Samuel, which was one of our readings this morning. It is helpful to know that all prayer was originally communal and ritualized, or in other words we all praise the great spirit together, and then bless or endure the events that befall the whole community. Here we hear one of the first accounts of silent prayer. Hannah is one of two wives that Elkhanah has. She is the favored one, but she has no children. In the ancient world nothing could make you feel worse than this, and the other wife naturally makes fun of her for being barren. She became very upset, and all Elkhanah’s comforting does no good. She goes to the temple to pray, but does so in her heart, and not out loud. The rabbi sees her silently praying. Perhaps she is moving her lips or mumbling, but he could not hear a voice, and thinks she’s drunk because prayer was always done out loud.. He accuses her of wrong doing. Then she tells him how she has been beseeching God because she feels so badly. The honesty of her confession moves the rabbi, and he blesses her. Somehow this sharing of her burden relieves her sadness. And sure enough, the next year she gives birth to Samuel, a prophet who becomes Israel’s leader.
Silent prayer evolved much later in culture. Maybe we even get a sense of this from the famous passage in Matthew where Jesus says go into your room and pray in secret. Many of us learned that this was the proper way to pray, and even thought that God could hear those silent thoughts in our heads, because God knows and hears everything, spoken or not. I rejected the kind of prayer I learned about as a child because I focused on results, which might be an easy thing to do here because Hannah gets the baby. What is interesting is that Hannah’s silent praying makes her look like a drunk, and causes the rabbi to doubt her integrity. For the Jews, to speak was a sign that you were alive, you had breath, but to be silent was to be dead. For me joys and sorrows embodies this ancient tradition of prayer as initially being a public utterance that joins our hearts and spirits together in community, binding us in solidarity, while the silent prayer only serves the private need.
In the remaining time I am going to speak about three kinds of prayer and how we express those at holiday time, and how they are made manifest in joys and sorrows here in our worship service. For me joys and sorrows should embody in words the prayers of the people who are expressing a prayer of thanksgiving, of confession or acceptance. If that is so, then I want you to think of it as a prayer before you say a single word. It is not a narration of story, but rather the culmination of a story – It is not intended as an open microphone where I share the details of my trial, but it is the simple expression that I have been through a trial, celebrate its ending with me, or please hold me I am in need, or help me accept my situation or my life. In the spirit of the ancient Jews, make your joy or sorrow the prayer of the community.
Thankfulness – “Thank you, God” by Maya Angelou
I want to thank you God,
For life and all that’s in it.
Thank you for the day
And for the hour and for the minute
I know many are gone;
I’m still living on.
Joys and Sorrows, and holidays together are times to express our gratitude for the blessings we have received. They say if you have one prayer, then let it be this . . . and so we hear at joys and sorrows – thank you for the choir, thank you for the gift of this child, thank you for this insight, thank you for supporting me. Many of us raise a Christmas tree, and on it we place ornaments we have collected from generations gone by. Perhaps it is like the one knit by the hand of my mother, now gone, and when I hang it on the tree I remember her. And so the cable car reminds me of years in Berkeley, and the Yeoman Warder of my love for England, grateful for where I have come from and what has nurtured me. So when I put up a tree it is a prayer that life will endure. When I hang an ornament on it, it is a prayer to the memory of a person whose life was a gift to me. And when I light a candle it is a prayer that I want to reach out from my heart to welcome others, and counter the dark pains of life. This a time of thankfulness, for remembering those who have gone before, having given us the traditions of tree and gift and light and love we live by. And even Hannah sad in her childlessness, is blessed for love, for life, for a place to share her sorrow, for hope that there might be a new tomorrow. We offer up prayers of joy and gratitude, thankful for traditions that give us comfort and peace, thankful for people who give us love and warmth of spirit. The light shines in gratitude for the life we have been given. The joy multiplies when we give thanks. . . .
Confession – “A Prayer” by May Sarton
Help us to be the always hopeful
Gardeners of the spirit
Who know that without darkness
Nothing comes to birth
As without light
The harvest is over, and now comes the long night of the soul. Hannah comes to the temple because of overwhelming sorrow that she cannot have a baby. Take this weight she says to God, to the universe, to her community and help me bear it. We don’t know if she asks God to grant her the gift of pregnancy, or merely shares her immense feelings of unworthiness, of failure, of sorrow. For us the holiday season may evoke other kinds of confessions that we want to unburden our soul from. The culture asks us to give, be generous, to spend all our money, to be happy, to do more for others, to be joyful in this season of joy, and our confession may be that we do not feel generous or warm towards others. In fact we feel resentful and put upon. Hannah was suppose to be public with her prayer just as we feel as though we need to put on a happy public face for all the parties and the family. But we may want to say our prayer in silence, or just have some time in the silence where no one rings a bell in our face, or tells us to spend some money or find the perfect gift. Our confession may be, “I don’t want to do this.” This child, or this person is a great burden on me, and I want to let go of my guilt or fear that I am the worst person in the world for wanting them to not come or go away. The confession is to lay our burden on the altar of each other’s comforting and compassionate souls. We have all done things we ought not to have done. We have all thought ungenerous thoughts towards others, felt unworthy as a parent, or partner or friend. We have all been burdened with immense sadness and pain.
What sorrows do we bear that are lessened by sharing with others? What does sharing a sorrow or lighting a candle do to us, to the community, to the universe? Some might say it’s just a ritual. Charlyn, our music director says it opens a portal. To another world? A person? Some might say the verbalizing of a sorrow will help me unload the burden. You will support me in my pain, and I will feel relieved, forgiven, able to try again. Is there a big ear to hear your need? Only as the people with ears and the healing earth that absorbs loving energy, warmth, and care is there. Each of us needs affirming and reminding that we are loved, that our presence is wanted, and that we can find peace even if we only have this time right now. It is enough. So confession allows us to see that others have known this burden and we are not alone. Confession allows us to understand that we are not perfect, and others feel their own imperfections, their own selfishness, their own failings, and together the confession helps us realize we are not alone, but are connected to each other in the mystery and miracle we call life.
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.
I am not going to get that stereo for Christmas? She’s not coming home? We can’t come visit? As children we may think of what we are going to receive for Christmas. Here is my list. Parents, God, life, please give me what I want, what I deserve, what I should have. What? It is not going to be that way. You don’t love me, God , universe parents. Hannah cries in anguish that there is no baby. Did she feel acceptance of what her life seemed to give her before the pregnancy? Did she say, “This is the way it is going to be,” and feel blessed? Can every candle we light be a sign that we are in a process of accepting what life has given us? Can each flame be another step in a path of letting go of the losses we have experienced. Can each resentful sorrow become a joy of acceptance helping to heal us from the pain we feel from the person who betrayed us, abandoned us, or left us behind? I think two things about prayer. The first is the only prayer should be thank you. You have given me this life with such beauty, such opportunity for love. I confess that I have not always appreciated this gift. The second is that I once thought prayer was done to change God, to make the universe or life give me this or give me that, but that prayer may only be wishful thinking. Prayer is what I can do to change me, not God. What is going to change me? I am going to be more thankful. I am going to be very clear about anger and pain and sorrow. I am going to say, this is my life. Then embrace the blessings I have received.
Acceptance is what truly brings us wisdom, and then we move on. Perhaps we are lucky enough to receive life’s previously denied gifts, as Hannah did. Or perhaps not. The acceptance ends bitterness, produces forgiveness, and gives us freedom. Does it matter if prayer goes anywhere or does anything? I always say that healing thoughts will help heal the universe, or loving thoughts will make the world more compassionate. While it may not be a God healing some person in pain, or offering a special gift of life, it sure helps if we light a candle for hope, or hug a friend for love. Prayer is the foundation of the yearning to change ourselves. Prayer is first step for us to reach out to touch others, and to touch the earth. A prayer does go into the world because each of us is changed by the prayers we give, by the prayers of the community we take into our hearts. We are more open to the healing and renewing powers of life
The UU theologian Charles Hartshorne was fascinated by bird calls, and he would have agreed that a bird’s singing is a prayer. He discovered that bird’s sing for the sheer love of singing. This is beyond attracting a mate, or calling out a warning. They just keep singing because it feels so great to do so. It makes them feel good. So let our prayers be silent or verbal reminders that we could be more thankful, and love life more each day. Mary Oliver suggests that prayer is sheer enthusiasm made manifest in the world. Can’t you just shout, just as long as I have breath, I must answer, yes, to life. Christmas is all about the celebration of a baby’s birth. It is saying yes to life, even in poverty, homelessness, and squalid surroundings. Life. So whether it’s “Thanks” or “I’m Sorry” or “I will be okay,” make it a prayer to walk more , sing more, and work more together. Let’s get to it. For our prayer must be said with enthusiasm, with passion, with longing for life. Pray without ceasing. Time’s a wasting. We’re still living on.
Closing Words – “The Avowal” by Denise Levertov
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall and float
into the Creative Spirit’s deep embrace.
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.
Hanging Between Heaven and Earth
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
December 2, 2012
The First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words Psalm 8
O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth! You, who have set such glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babes and children come words telling of your strength, and those words silence any who would oppose you.
When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained;
What are mere mortals, that you should care for them, and human beings that you are mindful of them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels, and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; and have put all things under their feet:
All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;
The birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, and everything that swims through the ocean tides.
O Lord our Lord, your majesty fills the earth!
My reading is an excerpt from a memoir written in 1892, by a man who had spent the previous six years as the hangman in the north of England. He was the first literate man to hold the position. Before I share his words, I’d like read a few lines from the diary of a French executioner, Anatole Deibler, who kept the position for over forty years – working until 1940. The French tradition was beheading rather than hanging, and Deibler prided himself on being able to do the deed more quickly than he could say “guillotine.” This entry from 1933 is about a 24 year old convicted of murder: “The day of his execution he was very surprised. He thought he would win a reprieve. When the prosecutor went up to him, he stopped him and said: ‘I know, I know. You’re going to ask me to be brave. I will be.’ He got dressed calmly…Whilst his hands were being tied behind his back, he said: ‘It’s cold this morning. I don’t want to catch a chill…’
And here, our English man’s words:
Personally I had a great distaste for the work of the executioner, though I did not consider it in any way dishonourable or degrading, and I had to weigh my family’s financial needs against my personal inclination…. I was convinced that I could do the work as well as anyone, and that I could make practical improvements in some of the methods and somewhat improve the lot of those appointed to die. This last consideration finally decided me, that, and the fact that some neighbors opposed my appointment, saying it would disgrace a respectable family…
I spent the Thursday night before my first execution smoking and reading in the little room at the back of the jail kept for the executioner. The chief warder seemed to touch upon the subject with great reluctance, and said that he felt quite upset concerning the two culprits, and that he hoped they would get a reprieve. I could see in his countenance a deep expression of grief… Before bed, I knelt and asked the Lord for strength to perform my duty.
In the morning, breakfast was brought into my room, and later the magistrates came to see me and review my plans…. After they departed, I filled my time walking about the prison grounds, and thinking of the poor men who were nearing their end, full of life, and knowing the fatal hour, which made me quite ill to think about. My meals did not seem to do me good, my appetite began to fall off, nothing felt good to me, everything that I put into my mouth felt like sand, and I felt as I wished 1 had never undertaken such an awful calling. I regretted for a while, and then I thought the public would only think I had not the pluck, and I would not allow my feelings to overthrow me, so I never gave way to such thoughts again.
After dining, I had the honour of having a drive in an open carriage, . . . which I enjoyed, after being inside the prison gates since my arrival on Thursday. … Then I learned that a reprieve was refused, and the law was to take its course, which made me feel as bad as the condemned men for a time. But I drove it out of my mind. … I retired to bed after reciting my prayers, and thinking only another night and I shall be back with my wife and children. Saturday night I was very restless, and I did not feel so much refreshed for my night’s sleep, as I was thinking of the poor creatures who were slumbering their hours away, in the prison cell, just beyond where I lay, thinking of the dreadful fate that awaited them in such a short space of time. Two men, in full bloom, and had to come to such an untimely end, leaving wives and large families. One poor woman, I was informed, her mind was so affected that she was removed to the asylum, she took it so to heart. …
I retired but only had catnaps all night one eye shut and the other open, thinking and fancving things that never will be, and which is impossible. I was dressed and up at 5 a.m.; and felt more dead than alive as I had such a responsible part to play in the programme for the day. I fancied the ropes breaking; I fancied I was trembling, and could not do it ; I fancied I fell sick just at the last push. I was nearly frantic in my mind, but I never let them know. 6 a.m. arrived. I heard the sound of the keys, clattering of doors, sliding of bolts. Breakfast had to be served earlier than usual. No prisoner allowed out of his cell until all was over. The public had begun to assemble on Calton Hill in groups. 7 a.m. arrived. I made my way to the scaffold, and the principal warder locked the door, not to be opened again until the procession enters for the great event of the day. . . At 7-45 the living group wended their way to the prison, and into the doctor’s room, ready for the last scene of the drama. The prisoners were brought face to face for the first time since their conviction. They kissed each other; and the scene was a very painful one, to see mates going to meet their end on the gallows. I was called to do my duty. I then proceeded to pinion the prisoners, previously shaking hands, bidding good-bye to this World. Both men seemed to feel the position very much. The procession was formed, headed by the High Bailiff, the Chaplain reading the litany for the dead. Both the prisoners walked without assistance to place of execution; where everything was done as quick as lightning, and both culprits paid the highest penalty of the law. . . . The magistrates, and doctors, and even the pressmen, admitted that the execution of the two men had been carried out in an humane manner as possibly could be, and that the poor fellows had not suffered the slightest pain… As this was my first execution, I was naturally anxious to have an assurance from my employers that it had been satisfactorily carried out.
Sermon: Hanging Between Heaven and Earth
Last May, Bob Shay was out riding his bike on a Sunday afternoon, meditating upon what he had heard in church that morning. It seems the message had been promoting the feeling of kinship among all people, which made Bob wonder what to do about people we don’t want to feel a kinship with. To quote the man himself, “I got to thinking about UU’s problems in dealing with the concept of evil and evil people (there are no evil people, only people whose behavior, for various understandable reasons, leaves much to be desired….).” I wondered what would happen “if we had a show of hands at a Sunday service: how many people…, if having to make the decision whether to order the killing a massively evil person – Bin Laden, Hitler, Saddam etc., with only the choice of ordering the killing or not – with no due process but also no worry about collateral damage etc, would say do it.” On one level, Bob’s interest in the topic was a simple one: he likes to provoke and get people thinking, and he believes that we have a broader range of beliefs in this congregation than we may think. On another level, it is complicated. He reported bringing his internal dialogue to the dinner table, whereupon a genuinely unpleasant argument with his spouse developed. The conversation ranged freely over issues of evil, capital punishment, slippery slopes, and logic. Then it was turned over to me, to resolve in fifteen minutes or less.
I would like to say that the church service auction this year included some conflict resolution training by Robert Kubacki, and I wondered if I could purchase that workshop and offer it to Bob and consider my work here done….
When Bob and I met to talk about what he was hoping for, it seemed the topic grew and spread out rather than becoming focused. But that makes sense. It is a big issue, and it is one that tends to quickly become emotional. In figuring out how to cope with evil, we have to define it and ask how it comes into the world. Do we blame God, the devil, other people, accidents, or nature? Once we decide who or what is to blame, then what? It’s not as if you can eradicate nature, or put an end to all tragic accidents, and it seems to me blaming God or Satan doesn’t get us too far, either. But blaming other people…. Well, that is something we can act on: Should we exterminate people who violate our understanding of what it means to be human? Unitarian Universalists, as Bob implied in his comments about not dealing with evil, generally say no. Most religions outside of evangelical Christianity and fundamentalist Islam do. But in a way, arguing for or against the death penalty obscures the question. We end up talking about the law itself, the morality of the law instead of the….. what noun shall I use? Sinner? Criminal? Evil-doer? Human? When we are talking personally about evil, the focus is generally on coping. How do we learn to live after great suffering and terrible injustice has been visited upon us or those we love? What will help us regain ourselves, or a sense of security? But publicly, the conversation is about the law, and this distances us from the most painful parts of figuring out how to live in a highly imperfect world. Legal processes grant us a secure frame for questions of evil, but they also make it seem as if the way we look at those questions is ordained, and represents a permanent vision of justice.
Both our French and our British executioners worked with incredible efficiency in order to bring some humanity into a legal process that was inevitable and immutable. But of course laws change. Let’s turn to something that doesn’t change: The Bible. It starts with a story that deals with the consequences of knowing good and evil. The traditional interpretation of what happened in Eden is that disobedience caused the problem; that evil is a punishment and could have been avoided if Eve had not ignored God’s instructions. God told her not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but she plucked the fruit anyway, and offered it to Adam. I actually really like this story, and I think it can be helpful, as long as we can forget the way it has been construed. To me, this story is not about disobedience and anger and punishment; it is about the suffering that comes with awareness. Adam and Eve are put in a position where they must make choices. Even if they do not eat the forbidden fruit, they can’t escape knowing that the tree is there. It was specifically pointed out to them. Psalm 8, our opening words, sums up the first three chapters of Genesis: the heavens are created, and dry land, and fish and trees and flowers and animals, evidently including a talking reptile, and then people, who are given dominion over all of it. The psalmist asks, why are we different from the rest of creation? Even in Eden, Adam begins to understand the burden of that responsibility. He and Eve are one step removed. They don’t get to play by the law of the jungle, because they have to think about consequences. Humanity is different because it is made in God’s image, and is a little lower than the angels, which sounds nice, until you think about it. Hovering just above the earth, we can see the problems – the suffering and the dangers – but what can we do? What needs protecting and what should be banished? That is what God has to wrestle with after placing Adam and Eve in the Garden. It doesn’t go so well. First God lies a little in an effort to keep them from straying, and when that doesn’t work, God casts them out forever, cursing them all the way. And the message is that we are going to have to struggle in very similar ways.
We try not live this way – the avoidance, the threats, the disowning. So when someone commits an atrocity we begin looking at what happened to cause that behavior, as if chasing it down to its roots will make it all go away, and we will be restored to peace and harmony and the natural order of things. But the problem with that is that the natural order of things is brutal. The hero of Yann Martel’s novel, The Life of Pi, is the child of a zookeeper who is frustrated with people’s ideas about nature. He says “One might argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, with its absence of parasites and enemies, and the abundance of food…. But ….I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”
Bob’s question addressed this illusion by sidestepping, and by not looking for causes: If you were free to get rid of a terrorist, with no legal or social repercussions, would you do it? My informal observation is that we have a schizophrenic response. A frustrated, emotional reaction says “Yes.” That’s how I feel about half the time I read the paper. Last week I heard my spouse mutter “Why can’t we just shoot him?” in reference to the man who murdered ten year old Jeffrey Curley fifteen years ago. Charles Jaynes, the convicted killer, was in court petitioning for a legal name change so he could better practice his new religion. I can think of several other cases that provoke a similar reaction in me. I certainly did not shed any tears when the Navy SEALS shot bin Laden in his walled fortress. Yet the signs during the run-up to the election proclaiming, “Osama is dead and GM is alive” made me uncomfortable.
This is the other half of my schizophrenic answer, which is to say No. Given time for premeditation, I wouldn’t order someone killed. Legal freedom does not grant me moral freedom. I understand the futility of applying reason to terrorists, of expecting anything to be fair or sensible. But I still couldn’t actually do it.
I have been plagued by thoughts of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery while contemplating what to say this morning. It is a story about a community that keeps itself unified and tied to its past by staging an annual drawing in which the townsperson who chooses the marked slip of paper is stoned to death by everyone else. It is a haunting, compelling story that, to me, echoes the Biblical idea of a scapegoat – the animal on whom all the sins are placed, which is then driven out into the wilderness to die. But in this story, they take a person and place her or him in the middle of the community, and everyone hurls rocks at the chosen one until all that is left is a heap among the stones. This is also the Genesis story upside down. Shame becomes a binding force as everyone participates in the tradition, and because of that, can never leave. Because the community is perfect, you aren’t supposed to want to, but the point is that they can’t. Because they cannot see good and evil, they remain imprisoned in Eden. Their desperation to keep things the same means the only permanent feature of living there is ritualized violence.
Jackson and her husband, who was Jewish, lived in North Bennington, Vermont, and this story was written in 1948: the beginning of the Red Scare. Jackson said she wanted to dramatize how pointless violence and general inhumanity were used to keep people out, and that seemingly ideal places were often quite uncomfortable. Her children reported setting out of the house at first light to head for school, and seeing swastikas painted on their car windshield. Ralph Ellison said visiting their home was always tense– although welcomed inside, the streets he needed to take to get there were treacherous for a black man. Jackson got many, many letters about this story, and protesters cancelled their New Yorker subscriptions. But among all the outrage and discomfort, the most frequent question she was asked was where to go to watch the stonings. Sickening, perhaps, but Puritan New England actually insisted that public executions preserved communal health. I should say that the Puritans did not invent public execution – that was a British import, and it was less frequent here than in Europe. But the Puritans did invent the idea of making meaning of it, and preaching a sermon at the event, expecting the condemned to take his or her role in the public morality play.
A straight up getting rid of a known killer of thousands who remains a threat sounds like a no-brainer. It is not the same as the annual lottery or even the condemned criminal on the gallows. But while we may breathe a sigh of relief when a determined terrorist is no more, it is not inspiring. I don’t feel better. I think it adds a bit to the hopelessness about anything ever changing. Not all deaths are like that. A generation ago, there were students in Tiananmen Square, mowed down by the government. It was horrifying, and we quickly knew the world was going to change in response. Not overnight, not fast enough, but change came. Last February, young Arab Muslims were chanting “We are peaceful, we are peaceful.” Many of them did so knowing that they would be killed, and they were. These are deaths carry a moral urgency rather than a resignation. They are sacrifices that are also a preservation of conscience and will as human qualities that matter, even in this crazy world. I read once, I think in an essay by Robert Calasso, that the most destructive idea that humanity has ever come up with is the notion of creating a good society. As soon as we are trying to do that, we are getting ready to exclude, and annihilate. The only way to have a good society is to adapt, let things evolve, grow and change. We can’t force it, and we need to take the long view. We can’t create heaven on earth. That’s part of what it means to be hanging, a little lower than the angels.
Berry, the hangman, became famous for calculating the length of rope to match the convict’s height and weight, and ensure the quickest snap of the neck. He was truly invested in minimizing suffering. But what really interested me was the way Berry squelched his own gut reaction to the job. He says he had a great distaste for the work. He was considering the job because he needed the income, and found polite society’s readiness to shun him painful and hypocritical, so he thumbed his nose at them and took the position. These people employed him. They relied on the legal system to execute transgressors and make the area safe. Many assembled on the hill above the prison to watch. But like Berry himself, they considered the work distasteful, and they considered him and his family as marked by shame because of it. We ask people to kill in order to promote justice, but nobody wants to be friends with a killer. We’d really rather not know.
One of the great and terrible things about the internet is that you can research forever. I was able to learn more about Berry. It turns out that a famous Pentecostal evangelical used a story about the hangman in a sermon. Berry came to believe that capital punishment was wrong – although he never mentioned criminals, who he seemed to believe were all guilty. His reasoning was that the state had participated in destroying him by allowing him to become an executioner. In fact, Berry had become so miserable that he was suicidal. He was convinced that he was possessed by legions of demons – the souls of the men he had executed, which escaped from their dying bodies and jumped into his own. He was haunted by their voices in his head, and tried to throw himself out of a moving train, but was instead saved by a young religious man, who started bringing Berry on the salvation circuit with him.
Liberal religion is sometimes criticized for its adoption of the idea that we are like God – or, in today’s language, that all people have inherent worth and dignity. It can be seen as a denial of our capacity for evil and proof of a certain kind of arrogance. The same is said about dominion, about putting humans in charge of creation. But I think these very same statements are instead humbling. They mean that we are forced to grapple with responsibility and pain of enormous proportion. Everything is part of the creation and we are charged with caring for it and keeping it whole. This isn’t something that happens at a global level or a national one or even a legal one. It is about the way we live our own lives and the choices we make. Berry’s journey testifies to the reality of moral injury; to the damage done when core human values are violated. He was cast adrift, no longer safe even in his own head, even as worked to create safety for his community. The dead are not necessarily silenced. But something in us dies.
Because religions exist to serve the whole, we don’t get to kill off anyone in order to feel safer or less frustrated. Instead, we help each other cope with the reality that terrible, horrific things do happen, and sometimes by our own hand, even sometimes for good reason. We cannot protect everyone, but we can provide comfort and encouragement and keep trying to do the right thing. Sometimes we do that by not trying too hard; by not controlling everything, by not believing we can make it all come out the way we think it should. Near the end of the Odyssey, the hero arrives in Phaecia, where he is given a boat. It has no pilot, and Odysseus is alone – all of his sailors are dead, lost in his various battles. The ship has no rudder. This does not sound good. Yet the boat is magical. It simply understands where he needs to go, and can travel through mist and fog with no danger, because the Phaecian’s ships always take people where they most want to be. Not where they think they should go, but where they want to be. There, Odysseus tells Penelope about all his grief, and everything that he forced his own men to succumb to, and how he was treated like a god and given a ship, so he could cross the sea and get home. Home. “This was the last word of the tale, when sweet sleep came speedily upon him, sleep that loosens the limbs of men, unknitting the cares of his soul.”
We think the tale is over. It sounds like the perfect stopping place. But it goes on for just a little bit longer; just long enough for Athena to wake the hero, and call him out with his armor, and all his weapons.
Closing Words Mohammed Hafez-e Shirazi (14th century Persian poet)
I have come into this world to see this: the sword drop from men’s hands even at the height of their arc of rage because we have finally realized there is just one flesh we can wound.
 Prior to the 1830s, execution had a public function that showed a community’s willingness to better itself by getting rid of the worst sinners. This would ensure a future for the community, and the sinners were no different from anyone else, and in fact helped the community achieve salvation. They also helped with medical care – for a very, very long time the only bodies that future doctors could use were those left after a public execution. All others needed proper burial. But in the nineteenth century, criminal behavior began to be seen as a matter of choice, made by someone who was fundamentally different from you and me. It was no longer a lapse, or a giving in to temptation; it was a conscious choice, made by someone who had no communal role. Capital punishment began being administered behind closed doors rather than in the public square. We both needed to know that evil was being killed off, and needed not to see it. The good should not know the bad.
“Living Gratitude” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – November 25, 2012
Call to Worship – from Harriet Kofalk
in a moment of peace
I give thanks
to the source of all peace
as I set forth
into the day
the birds sing
With new voices
and I listen
with new ears
and give thanks . . .
the dew drops
with the morning’s sun-fire
and I give thanks
you can see forever
when the vision is clear
in this moment
I give thanks
Readings – from The Measure of My Days by Florida Scott-Maxwell
“Fault Line” by Robbie Walsh
The Measure of My Days by Florida Scott-Maxwell
Life is a tragic mystery. We are pierced and driven by laws we only half understand, we find that the lesson we learn again and again is that of accepting heroic helplessness. Some uncomprehended law holds us at a point of contradiction where we have no choice, where we do not like that which we love, where good and bad are inseparable partners impossible to tell apart, and where we, heart broken and ecstatic, can only resolve the conflict by blindly taking it into our hearts. This used to be called being in the hands of God. Has anyone any better word to describe it?
“Fault Line” By Robbie Walsh
Did you ever think there might be a fault line
passing underneath your living room:
A place in which your life is lived in meeting
and in separating, wondering
and telling, unaware that just beneath you
is the unseen seam of great plates
that strain through time?
And that your life, already
spilling over the brim, could be invaded,
sent off in a new direction, turned
aside by forces you were warned about
but not prepared for? Shelves could be spilled out,
the level floor set at an angle in
some seconds’ shaking. You would have to take
your losses, do whatever must be done next….
When the great plates slip
and the earth shivers and the flaw is seen
to lie in what you trusted most, look not
to more solidity, to weighty slabs
of concrete poured or strength of cantilevered
beam to save the fractured order. Trust
more the tensile strands of love that bend
and stretch to hold you in the web of life
that’s often torn but always healing. There’s
your strength. The shifting plates, the restive earth,
your room, your precious life, they all proceed
from love, the ground on which we walk together.
Sermon – “Living Gratitude”
I was recently asked to join the advisory committee for a group that is planning the 250th anniversary of the landing of John Murray on the New Jersey coastline in 1770, when he first brought the message of universal salvation to America. If you are good at addition you will realize that that means a celebration that will take place in the year 2020. While I am all for planning ahead, this seems a little extreme, especially since the chair of the group is in her mid-seventies. Despite my skepticism I acquiesced, throwing caution to the wind that I would be blessed to be healthy in eight years, as would the chairwoman. Murray, who is often called the father of Universalism in America had a series of devastating life experiences in England, including the deaths of his son, his wife, and a period of time in debtor’s prison owing to the expenses he incurred trying to keep his loved ones alive. He left those painful memories behind, came to the New World and eventually settled in Gloucester. You can visit the Sargent Murray Gilman house there. If you do visit, the tour guides may show you a rather unusual feature. On the second floor in one of the closets there is a box filled with dirt. This dirt serves no apparent purpose. It is neither an ant farm, an indoor compost pile nor sunless raised garden plot. Researchers who were puzzled by it all, finally figured out that this was John Murray’s’ personal box of dirt, which he used during times when he was feeling depressed. It seems the dirt was soil he had brought with him from England. When he felt a great sadness come over him, he would go and stand on the box, so that he was literally standing on his home ground. We don’t know what tangible effect this had upon Murray’s troubled soul, but each of us knows the feeling of wanting the comfort and care of home that will ease the pain of trying times.
Some of us may hope to replicate that feeling at holiday time. We eat comfort food, and spend time with relatives who evoke memories of family and home; some of us look forward to those times, others of us endure the time, and the rest of us experience some of both. Our parents, our siblings, assorted aunts and uncles and children are our own boxes of dirt with its mixture of nutrients and toxic soils. Like our friend John Murray, there is a folktale from the Talmud about King Solomon where he seeks a cure to the feelings of depression that come over him. He once told his wise advisors, if things go my way, I do not trust that it will last. But if things do not go my way, I fear my woes will never end. I have dreamed that there is a ring that contains the knowledge that will bring me peace of mind. Go and find it, as I wish to have it by Succoth, six months from now. So his advisors traveled over the countryside seeking this powerful ring. No jeweler had ever heard of such a inrg. The advisors even went to foreign countries and great cities such as Babylon to no avail. The king kept asking them if they had found the ring, but they always, said, no , not yet. His hopes were fading. On the eve of Succoth the advisors had nearly given up, all of them except the youngest one. Unable to sleep he walked through the city until he came to a street with the poorest houses. It was just dawn, and an old man was setting out his jewelry for sale. The young boy described the ring to the man. The old man was quiet for a time, and then went inside, only to return with a plain gold ring. He took the ring, and then engraved some simple words, and handed it to the boy. Once the advisor read what had been written, he knew he had the right ring. This is it, he said. That evening as the Succoth celebration started, the king interrupted the proceedings and called out, have you found my ring, yet? The youngest spoke up and said, yes, we have your highness. He came forward. The king looked at the words – “This, too, shall pass.” “This, too, shall pass.” As soon as he read the words, the king’s sorrows turned to joys, and his joys to sorrows, and he felt a sense of peace. He was reminded that everything was impermanent, and that he was blessed with a life that would bring him measures of both pleasure and pain, and although they might not always be equal, he realized that it was a great blessing simply to have known the gift of life. After this the king always remembered that his riches were impermanent, but also that his sorrows would pass with the seasons and the years. In both good times and bad, he remembered, “this, too, shall pass.”
Perhaps standing on a box of dirt, or fingering a ring seem like hollow ways to respond to times of difficulty in our lives, but they were ways these people found to ease their minds and remind them of being grounded in where they came from, what had nurtured them, and that they could come through a terrible turmoil knowing that it would pass from their lives. In the book, The Search for Meaning, Katherine Morrison recounts her own battle with suffering, placing it in the context of religious faith. Her eight-year-old son was very sick with a lupus like syndrome. For many months it seemed like she lived in the intensive care waiting room. There were times that seemed better than others, but overriding it all was the message that his brain condition seemed hopeless. She got tired of people asking her how she felt, when she believed the more pertinent question was how she was going to live. She grew tired of hearing what she called the 23rd Psalmers. Those who said it was going to be all right, even if the boys dies. And he probably won’t, they said, because I’m going to pray, and it’s all going to get better. She said she found the religious people irritating because the reality was more like the opening lines of the 22nd Psalm, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Later the woman went to talk to a rabbi, who told her, “Religion is not a set of beliefs; religion is the totality of your response to life. It is what you do with what you’ve got. And you’re a religious person, because you spend all those days and nights at the hospital, and all that research time working on trying to save your child. The rabbi said, you are religious because you don’t feel sorry for yourself, and you don’t just sit there hoping for some miracle cure or savior. You do something about this pain by being present to it with body, mind and soul. The rabbi told her she was creating a religious response to life. She was using her full heart to create something integrated and worthwhile out of the chaos that had landed on. The rabbi eventually conveyed his simple message that such a trial didn’t mean she had to hate life or herself because it had beaten her up so much. The basic Jewish stuff, as she called it, was given what has happened, what are you going to do now?
Katherine Morrison spoke true words when she said she was tired of people asking her how she felt. It was much more meaningful when the rabbi pointed her in the direction of what are you going to do now? Surely wrestling with our fears, our mistakes, our regrets, brings out anger and disappointment, even self-hatred or self-pity. But the important thing about those feelings is for the first time we may not have to pretend that they are not there. This was Katherine Morrison’s discovery after her son died. She said she wouldn’t pretend anymore that she wasn’t furious; she wouldn’t pretend just to swallow what happened. But she would use that energy to do something with her life. She writes, you just say, “it happened and we’re here, and we know there was goodness in this life that we’ve lost, and we take a deep breath, and go on.” We build a new life. There is a Jewish prayer in which you say, “What is it for us to do? It is for us to heal the world.” The story behind the prayer is that there was an original great light, and it was divided and spread and cast all asunder, and it is for each of us (who has a part of the light inside themselves) to gather more, to gather the light back together, and when the light is all reunited, it will be the coming of the messiah, or we will have created heaven on earth. But our mission must be to gather the light.
Sometimes it’s hard to think of how we could gather the light. We may feel like the world is not blessing us with exactly what we wanted. We worry about the future of our job, or we feel like failures as parents. How can we feel blessed when illness weighs upon us, or we have bills we cannot pay? Religious traditions responded to seasons of darkness like the coming winter, or even those we face in our lives, with visions of how we might make light come into the world. Susan Schnur wrote a column in the New York Times over a decade ago where she described a Holocaust survivor who many years after his ordeal would ritually kiss a piece of rye bread and then eat it with great, almost holy delight, calling out between bites the word for bread in every language he knew. His experience had brought him a tremendous sense of gratitude. He knew what it meant to have a piece of bread that would sustain him. Schnur also wrote of her own suffering, which in her case was a spinal disease that woke her every night in terrific pain. After she was well, she continued to wake up expecting the pain, and then would fall asleep again relieved that the pain was gone. In time though, she wrote, “ it was the relief itself that woke me, a gratitude so sharp it felt almost physical.” One can affirm the goodness of life when a time of great travail has been lived through, when there are moments of thankfulness or just simple relief.
How do we transform that energy of pain into healing? We somehow get through. We work at it. We endure, and then when it is over, we feel a blessing that we have survived. Each of us must find a magical ring to help us understand that this too will pass. We get through with a joyful time, with a friend to lean on, by working hard to understand or find solutions, or simply by knowing there will be the other side. If we spend our lives pretending that the pain isn’t there like Katherine Morrison, then perhaps a difficult time will teach us that we can no longer pretend. If we spend our lives shut off to what we want and need, then perhaps after a difficult time, we will no longer be silent. Or if we have never truly been thankful, we will praise that bread, or rejoice that the pain is gone after the difficult time is over, and consequently will learn to feed others, and support others in their pain.
My colleague Gary Kowalski retells a story he heard from his grandfather about a cowboy who had just lassoed a steer with a lariat tied to his horse’s saddle. Suddenly he noticed a big tree in front of him, and the horse and the steer were headed for opposite sides of it. Figuring it was time to say his prayers, the cowboy recited the only one he knew. “Lord, make us grateful for these blessings we are about to receive.” Who in their right mind would think of this as a blessing? Perhaps it emanates from an overall attitude that all of life is a blessing, and that despite the bumps and bruises we experience along the way, it is a great ride for which we can feel truly grateful. I have always appreciated what, UU lay preacher Peter Fleck said about the Pilgrims. He noted that they were not thankful that they had survived, but rather they had survived because they were thankful. They had an ability to always uphold the blessings of life itself and go on living appreciating whatever they received, and this attitude of gratitude allowed them to gain the strength to go on. My son Levi had a refreshing sense of gratitude when he was little. One gift at Christmas or even one piece of candy would be enough, and rather than quickly looking for what was next, he would cherish whatever he received.
In the reading Robbie Walsh found the fault line underneath his life, and his life was set off in a new direction. Years ago I remember standing along the San Andreas fault line, and seeing a symbolic reminder of the results of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The movement of the earth was graphically depicted by a picket fence that split, and the gap from one end of the fence to the other was twenty feet between ends that were once connected. It is hard to feel blessed sometimes when jobs and children and relationships threaten to split us asunder, and the lassoed steer goes in a different direction from the horse. We need that ring to tell us, this too will pass. All I have been given has blessed me. We must take our loses, and then do whatever is to be done next. Walsh would have us trust the web of life that is torn, but always healing, especially when we ask what is to be done, and answer like Florida Scott-Maxwell, “we take this tragic mystery called life, and we take it into our hearts. We take this tragic mystery that makes us sometimes moan why am I forsaken or I am not blessed. But then we go find a new home to stand on in the web of life. There is a box of earth that will hold us up. When we look to the strength of our own hearts, and the gift of resilience we find there, we realize the enduring power of the web of life and light we each can give to one another. The Advent season affirms that even in darkness there is always the promise of light; that in despair, there is always hope. Gioconda Belli, a Nicaraguan poet, writes in his poem, “Until We are Free” “let’s all brandish our heart, never fearing that it will burst, for a heart the size of ours, resists the cruelest tortures, and nothing can placate its devastating love, which grows, beat by beat, strong, stronger, stronger.”
Closing Words – from Rainer Maria Rilke
O tell us, poet, what you do. –I praise.
Yes, but those dark, deadly and devastating ways,
how do you take it, how resist? –I praise.
But the anonymous, the nameless maze,
how summon it,
how call it, poet? –I praise.
What right is yours, in all these varied ways,
under a thousand masks yet true? –I praise.
And why do stillness and the roaring blaze,
both star and storm acknowledge you? –because I praise.
“Saying Makes it So” a sermon by Mark W. Harris
November 11, 2012 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to worship – from Carl Sandburg (adapted)
Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and our endless human yearnings for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prisms of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.
Readings – I Kings 10 – Queen of Sheba story
from Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
When I was minister at the First Parish in Milton we voted on Jesus. This was not your simple thumbs up/thumbs down kind of religious preference of “I like Jesus” or not. This had to do with the affirmation of faith we said every Sunday, and the reaction to it by those who wanted the church to be less Christian. The affirmation was: “In devotion to truth, and in the spirit of Jesus Christ, we unite for the worship of God, and the service of all. While not as close as the Presidential voting in Florida in last Tuesday’s election, it was still tight. It was Jesus vs. Jesus Christ, and Christ won by two votes. It was not that the majority believed that we should be worshipping Christ rather than following Jesus. No, it was a feeling like it had always been that way, so why change it now. Then there were those uninformed folks who simply felt Christ was his last name, and just calling him Jesus was perhaps too informal. Only in a UU church would we vote on Jesus. But that said, the first line of the affirmation was completely ignored – “in devotion to truth.” What truth is it we are devoted to?
This devotion to truth reminded me that we also have our own Trinity. While not the Father, Son, Holy Ghost variety that we rejected long ago, it can be easily accessed by looking at hymn #113 – “where is our holy church, where race and class unite, as equal persons in the search for beauty, truth and right. Beauty, truth and right? Defining those terms almost makes the Trinity seem rational. Beauty is an aesthetic value concerning what we see in the world or create with our hands. In fact, Keats famously said that beauty is truth, and truth beauty, and that is all you need to know. Except that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Right seems to be about doing the right thing, like giving people a fair chance, and treating everyone with kindness and compassion. And finally, there is truth. We may say that truth is what we are devoted to, but how do we define it? Is absolute Truth the Ten Commandments that God handed down on Mt. Sinai, or is it the beatitudes that Jesus preached on the metaphorical mountain? Neither a belief in God, the worthiness of the Bible, or Jesus are things we could agree on as truths. We might say we believe in many truths, and that those come to each of us based on our own understanding of knowledge and experience of life. The hymn says we are equal persons in the search for truth. So rather than a defined truth, it is more about a free search, and in that freedom we have each taken it upon ourselves to be the ultimate arbiters of authority. What is true for me, while grounded in tradition, must be based in honest dialogue about we experience the world. Truth is neither absolute nor permanent, but to begin with, it would help if it were at least based in the facts.
I began the sermon by talking about voting up or down for perceived truths about the world. This was one continuing debate I had with myself as this election year unfolded, and was the genesis of this sermon. I often seemed to be asking myself, how can a candidate make such outrageous statements that seem to have little or no basis in truth, and then get away with it. Perhaps you are sick and tired of political discussions having been subject to countless television ads, but I am hoping this will be a post-election call for greater truth and integrity in our government and in our lives. How would you like to have everything you ever wrote, even fictional stories, be portrayed as gospel truth about what you stand for? In the 1930’s Upton Sinclair, who is remembered most for his novel The Jungle, published a fictional work called “I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty.” The book told how he was going to run for governor, be elected, and then proceed to eradicate poverty. It was a very popular work, and what was intriguing about it was his attempt to make fiction true. He fulfilled his prediction that he would win the party nomination, but he lost the election. Part of the reason he lost was that a new type of business, the first political consulting firm ever, was created to defeat him. Campaigns, Inc. employed a little army of researchers who looked up every thing Sinclair had ever written, and then fed quotes to the Los Angeles Times which ran a front page box with an Upton Sinclair quotation every day. For example, Sinclair wrote a novel about a man whose wife was having an affair, and the character wrote a heartbroken letter to his wife’s lover. The paper quoted this fiction as an accurate portrayal of Sinclair’s views of marriage: “The sanctity of marriage . . . I have had such a belief. I have it no longer.” Nothing, the New Yorker reports, has altered our political democracy so much in the last century as the creation of political consulting.
While politics as business may be new to the world, hiding or masking the truth, intrigue and manipulation of words are not new. They are all used to keep the office holder in power or help him or her take power. Our manipulations of truth or words may have personal implications as well. We all deal with politics in the various organizations we belong to or jobs we hold. What are you willing to say or not say to the boss? Or in a church, how do you handle a person’s feelings so they don’t threaten to quit if they don’t get their way? At work, do you tell the boss exactly what you think despite the possibility of termination? Do you tell the volunteer if they can’t abide by certain civil rules of conduct, then they should go ahead and quit? There is probably no more famous story about the confluence of politics, religion and marital infidelity as that of Henry VIII, and his attempt to woo Anne Boleyn. Hilary Mantel tells about Thomas Cromwell’s struggles in Henry’s court in Bring Up the Bodies, where Anne Boleyn meets her fate. Mantel asks the pointed question, “What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is blurred because of various rumors and twists, but truth more often than not is found whimpering at a back door if it is not pleasing to the ear. Who took Katherine’s virginity, the church asks? This is a fact they and we will never know, but a truth that was lost to political expediency. As they say, we all tend to believe what we want or need to hear.
Upton Sinclair was beaten by a manipulation of truth that he referred to as the Lie Factory. There was another Lie Factory centuries before, as described by Poggio, a secretary to the Renaissance Pope, Boniface IX. This scribe made an amazing discovery when he saved from oblivion a narrative poem from the first century called On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. This story was recounted last year in the book, The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. Lucretius described a universe of atoms that were randomly moving through space. It was a universe without a creator where the main truth for human beings was to enjoy the pleasures of living. Imagine this truth vs. the truth that the church taught 2,000 years ago. The Lie Factory in 1430 was a room at the Vatican where all the papal secretaries would tell jokes, and the butt of these jokes was often the pope himself. To retain their sanity, these employees would reveal their gossip and snipes. Poggio told stories that may not seem unfamiliar to us. For example, you bring the boss a document, and he says fix it, it’s all wrong. Later you bring back the same document, and he pronounces it perfect. Most of the stories are about sex. He tells about monks who hear confessions from women who all report being faithful, and then confessions from men who have all committed adultery, and wonders who are the women these men have sinned with. Where is the truth? Who is boasting about what they have claimed to have done? Poggio wondered why churchmen were especially prone to hypocrisy. Is there a relationship, he asks, between religious vocation and fraud? Poggio wanted to know how to identify hypocrites. He concluded that they bear such attributes as being excessively pure, want to be called good without actually doing anything good, want to make sure you know how much they fast or pray, and especially be wary of those who seem too perfect. Who wants to be affirmed in his/her goodness Well, clergy want to please everyone, and politicians want to please everyone, too. They want to be loved and/or voted for, but when can they say what they really think without political ramifications? Is it about getting flies with honey rather than vinegar, but where is the dividing line between too sweet and reality? I’ll try to say what I think you want to hear.
What are ways in which truth is violated and how can we guard its sanctity? I think it is good to have memory invoked and also some sort of perspective on how things were. My colleague in ministry David Boyer recently said, “I am so old that I can remember when liberals were liberal.” While I am old and times have changed, I was often offended in this campaign when certain candidates in their efforts to woo the right wing referred to the President’s plans for America as a “hard-core left agenda,” that has taken the nation “very far left, very fast.” Since when have we lived under such a leftist? You would think Castro himself were in office. This President proposed tax rates on the wealthy and a health plan that were more conservative than what Richard Nixon once supported, and his radicalism is decried? When it comes to truth we always need some perspective. Having this perspective helps us say, that person is really not what you are calling him.
Second, this also helps us to understand that a person’s truth may be calculated for effect. As we use to say, you are just saying that to get a rise out of me, or you want to provoke me for your own gain. The important lesson here is to call people on their methods, and say “stop that”, or I know what you are trying to do. This was not a good election for facts. Candidates said or implied things that had no basis in reality, or they said them as if their opponent had said something to the contrary, even if they had not. For instance one candidate said, I won’t take God off the coins. This implied that the other candidate had said they would remove “In God We Trust” from the coins. Was this ever said? No. But in making such a definitive affirmative statement you imply that you are responding to something the other said, even though they never did. What is so critical here is the need to stand up for truth, and keep calling the other on their deceptive methods. Two aspects of the Romney campaign shed light on this. First, the refusal to release tax returns. The refusal might have indicated that there was something to hide, but no one continued to indicate that this was a problem, and if they did, they soon found they were a lone voice crying in the wilderness. So the concern died out, and he never had to own up to this earlier refusal to comply with being transparent. The lesson is that when someone is lying; don’t let them get away with it, but instead insist that they be forthcoming.
The third aspect of this truth telling is not only speaking up, but also asking for more detail. When I was a teenager I tried to live my lies by being vague. I would say, “I am going into town.” This meant never really saying where I was going or what I was going to do. I was asking for trust and understanding where it was not really warranted. In this campaign, not only did Romney refuse to follow any kind of expected disclosure, he also refused to be specific about details. How could his tax cuts put the nation back on a sound economic footing? Vagueness means that you do not have to reveal specifics that would give others the information they need to base a decision on. This particularly became difficult to apprehend when we witnessed his transformation in the last month to someone we should believe in simply because he said so. This is what the New York Times referred to as a path to secretiveness. This is a way we lie by non-disclosure of facts, information or truths. I think my parents path made more sense. They were like Detective Joe Friday, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Tell us the truth. Where are you going, and with whom, to do what, and with politicians, just how are you going to do that? The bottom line here is for us to pay attention not necessarily to what is said, as it is to what is not said.
We all know that people manipulate data to serve their own truths. What was striking in the campaign was how the politicians were often in full attack mode, so that their opponents were increasingly villainized. They would have us believe that their opponent was going to drive us off the cliff they are so horrible and ineffective. When the attacks are so fast and furious it is hard to find objective truth about the other. It seems like it is all fabricated. Objective truth about the common good seems to be sacrificed for the personal truth of one candidate’s mission to be elected. These then are the things politicians do to establish the truth of their position and person with respect to their opponent. They lie by attacking the other, when they could be less vindictive, and more respectful. They lie by withholding the truth, when they could be more forthcoming. We help them lie by not holding them up to a forthcoming standard. They lie by misleading us as to reality, and we need to look back and have some perspective. They may persuade us that our situation is normative, when it is not. We could teach politicians a lot about how to live lives that reflect personal integrity – to be respectful, to be forthcoming, to be assertive, to have knowledge, memory and perspective on what really is true. As Emerson once said, “ Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth.”
Finding truth in this apprenticeship of life is not easy. People once believed that God established the ultimate truth, and the Bible contains the revelation of this truth. When people learned to read that book for themselves they saw there were different ways to understand that truth. Even as Protestantism flourished, and our faith was born, people were less and less likely to know a shared truth about the world they lived in. There was no longer one world truth to believe in. Historically we have believed in hierarchies of truth. As we learned about other religions we saw some as being more or less worthy than others, or even more full of the truth. People tend to believe that their faith is the truth that will save the human race. We have a different vision of truth, and it draws on some of those life lessons of creative interchange with the opposition that I spoke of earlier rather than vilifying them as an enemy or at best a perpetrator of false truth.
If you grew up in a traditional western faith you heard stories about the famous Queen of Sheba. She was the rich Queen from the book of I Kings who visits King Solomon. The story is typically used as a way to exemplify the greatness of Solomon, and yet Sheba is clearly shown to be a woman who is clever in word and deed, wealthy and powerful. In I Kings, they test each other, with hard questions, and both are proven worthy. She is also a figure who is mentioned in both the New Testament and the Koran as well, and so she appears in all three western traditions, one of the few women to do so.
Here one can see all three faiths coming together to reconcile difference and discord, rather than bullying the other to follow one truth over another, and or in deceiving one another with lies or with vagueness or withholding, which is often what we do in fear of expressing a truth that someone might disagree with. Interfaith reconciliation is a way to prevent mutual destruction, but is also a way for us to see that we must be honest with one another about our own personal experiences.. To find common truth that will allow the world to continue in peace means that we take the inner world that we have learned from our culture and family and journey to a new land, an outer world that will expand our horizons. We will not teach a truth that we demand the other will grasp, but rather we live a truth that allows us to learn from each other, listening and engaging, to understand what the other’s truths may be. Truth for us is based in the integrity of the person and the transparency of the relationship. Truth is not what I say, but who I am and who we are together. The truth in our hearts is not to conquer another, or to deceive another, or to withhold from another, but the heart’s journey is to go to the other, and share what is in our hearts, trusting our instincts that being honest and forthcomng with one another will lead us to something greater together. I want to listen to what you have discovered to be true, and learn how you live that truth every day of your life.
Closing Words – from Ralph Waldo Emerson
Nothing is secure but life, transition, and the energizing spirit. No love can be bound by oath, no truth is sublime but it may be trivial tomorrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled; only so far as they are unsettled is there any hope.
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