First Parish of Watertown

Sermons

“My Jesus” by Mark W. Harris – December 15, 2013

“My Jesus” by Mark W. Harris

December 15, 2013 –  First Parish of Watertown

 

Call to Worship – from The Gospel of Thomas

The disciples said to him, “Tell us who you are, so that we can trust you.”  Jesus said, “You search for me through heaven and earth, but you don’t know the one who is right before your eyes, because you don’t know how to search into this very moment.”

Reading  – from The Testament of Mary – Colm Toibin

Sermon

My father loved the old television show “All in the Family.”  Sometimes called one of the groundbreaking shows in the history of television, the show featured an older married couple, Archie and Edith Bunker.  Archie was that benign bigot who, despite his prejudices, was somehow understandable and loveable as he struggled to adjust to changing times and issues such as homophobia and racism.  Edith, was Archie’s wife, whom he often called a dingbat who needed to stifle herself. She was a naïve but ultimately wise person, who loves her irascible husband.  What my father especially enjoyed was Archie’s treatment of his son-in-law, who was married to their daughter Gloria.  Often depicted as a hippie freeloader, the son-in-law earned the nickname “meathead,” which my father conveniently adopted for his own long haired youngest son.  Of course he identified with Archie, too. The two television representatives of the generations, clashed over the issues of the times, just as society was stricken with social, religious and political issues that my family, and perhaps yours, responded to in its own way.

The holiday season is a time when many of us reflect upon our own family configurations, and the conflicts we confront, negotiate, endure, resolve in some manner and mostly survive.  It is also a time when we think about religion.  Once when Archie had gone to church one Sunday, and was feeling smug, the normally demure Edith sarcastically referred to him as “Mr. Religion.”  It was sweet revenge for his regular snipes at her.  It may seem like “religion” time around this church.  Just as the magazine rack at the local stores have issues of Time and Newsweek that are often about Jesus at Christmas and Easter, so the local UU minister seems to decide that this must be an appropriate time for us to reflect upon this mysterious religious figure.

Yet speaking about Jesus or Christianity is always fraught with considerable consternation.  Many of our members find their way to our doors because of negative experiences with Christian childhood upbringings.  When Frederick May Eliot was president of the American Unitarian Association there were a series of debates at annual meetings to change the name of the denominational paper from the Christian Register to the Unitarian Register, with one of the loudest commentators saying, “The less there is of Christianity, the better.”  This journal changeover occurred in 1957, perhaps not so coincidently the year that Eliot died of a heart attack while in office.

Yet despite this trepidation about Christianity, UUs embrace the celebration of Christmas.  This is typically done with a rational, historical approach.  Sophia Fahs, our great religious educator reminded us that the birth of this child Jesus is much like that of any child, whose birth is cause for celebration because all such nights are holy nights.  While recognizing the birth stories of Jesus are created to fulfill theological truths and mythic stories affirmed by early Christians, we are usually quick to discern the historical details often concluding that we really don’t know much of anything about where or when Jesus was born, but we’ll sing Silent Night anyway. Even for a day, many of us put down our inclination to sneer at miracles or unnatural births while emphasizing the possibility of new life even in times of darkest winter.  This is a positive direction for liberals who often proclaim their religious freedom above all, but sadly sometimes understand freedom to mean freedom to reject everything religious as silly stories for simple people, translated as we don’t believe any of that Jesus Christ stuff.  Yet freedom is not merely freedom to reject, but it is also freedom to embrace new ways to be inspired, new ways to understand, and new ways to be with each other in the world.

Christmas brings us back to that experience of family relationships.  It is expectant mother and father making their way to Bethlehem on the donkey.  It is the holy night in the stable, giving way to birth. It is the shepherds watching by starlit sky.  It is the three kings bringing gifts to celebrate this great event.  It is fleeing from evil King Herod.  We think of relationships within the family, where and how to live, and how does the world impact this family?  How do families survive in times of economic and political oppression?

This is a pertinent question not merely in reflecting upon Jesus life 2000 years ago, but also with Nelson Mandela, whose life has been remembered and celebrated this past week.  Serving a life sentence for conspiring to overthrow the government by force, he was kept in a 8 X 7 foot cell for eighteen years by the white supremacist regime in South Africa.  He could send and receive one letter every six months. In 1969 after his wife Winnie was arrested, he wrote to his daughters, whom he had not seen in five years. He told them they might have to live like orphans without home or parents, without love or affection, without birthday parties or Christmas presents, without clean beds and good food.  Perhaps, he said, we will never join you again at home.

Mandela made no apologies to the girls.  He said he and Winnie had convictions, and had to make sacrifices.  The cost of freedom was not easy.  At one point before his arrest, Mandela’s daughter Zeni was brought to a safe house where he was hiding.  After hugging him, she grabbed all the clothing, and tugged at his hand to come with her. In retrospect he remembered, “You felt deserted.” He could have received the death penalty, but the government did not want to make a martyr of him. In all he spent 27 years in prison.  It took its toll on the family.  He was prepared to die for the ideal of a free and democratic society.  Despite his reputation as a peacemaker, he never rejected armed struggle. Without violence, there never would have been negotiation.  He took up the battle after 67 peaceful protestors against apartheid were gunned down.  There will be no domination of white over black, or black over white, he believed all persons should live in harmony with equal opportunities.  He once wrote, “A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At a point, one can only fight fire with fire”

Fighting fire with fire is crucial to two books I have recently read that are about Jesus. First, The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, is a novel that was short listed as a potential winner of the Mann Booker prize.  The other book is non-fiction, a best seller by Reza Aslan, called Zealot.  One thing that is true of these two books is that they give us a Jesus who is not our Jesus.  At first you might think that both books give us a more human figure than the Christ of Christianity that Unitarians have tried to either reject, discredit or downplay since the Renaissance  scholar Erasmus first noticed that the passage from I John that was used by the Catholic church to prove the veracity of the Trinity was a later addition to the Gospel.

Since the very beginnings of the Christian church there were those Christians who wanted a God like savior, and others who wanted a very human  inspirational teacher or friend.  While Unitarians have consistently said he was not a God who died for our sins, we have also consistently said that he was the human peacemaker and healer, who counsels us to turn the other cheek, and love and forgive everybody.  Aslan tells us that this love your enemies Jesus is pure fantasy.  The simple fact, he says,. is that this man was crucified for sedition.  This means he confronted the powers of his time, and the Romans killed him to set an example to all others who questioned their political authority.  Aslan points out that Jesus was first and foremost a Jew, and his counsel to love your neighbor had to do with his fellow Jews. But as to Roman oppressors who held the Jews by the throat, he would have concurred with the Torah which said, do not make any covenant with them.  The  Zealots were a political party who fought for freedom.  It is clear Aslan says that Jesus was no pacifist. Think of this passage from the Gospels: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.”  Think of how Mandela is now remembered as the peacemaker.  Would it be so when he was advocating violence?  He had to be the angry warrior against injustice before he could  ultimately be the peacemaker.

Everybody has their own story of how events occur, and stories are often reinvented in order to prove something.  Most of us know of evidence of this in our time.  People frequently doctor their resumes so that they suddenly have degrees from Brown that never were conferred, or jobs in industries that are inflated and conflated to extravagant proportions.  We forget stories that are too painful.  We change stories to hide the truth. My wife tells a story about her cousin that is confirmed by her brother, and yet the cousin denies it ever occurred.  He cut himself badly once while chopping wood.  He apparently needed stitches, but his father decided he could take of the surgery himself.  A little needle and fishing line later, and the sutures pulled together the wound.  No anesthesia was used. Years have passed, and the cousin says it never occurred.  Did he forget?  Did it happen?

Aslan says that in the ancient world, people did not make sharp distinctions between myth and reality as we do. They wanted spiritual truths, but underlying facts did not really matter. This means Jesus’ family never went down into Egypt, but to fulfill Biblical prophecy, the new Moses had to come up out of Egypt, and so he did.  A recent review of Aslan’s book in the UU World asks, “Who gets to tell Jesus story?”  As with any story, there are multiple versions.  Those Gospel writers each saw Jesus differently.  In fact the authors were not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but books written by followers of those schools of thought, and the use of the names was honorific.  Think of the different reports that surface after we all see a car accident differently.  Who was at fault? What happened? Teaching history reminds me that winners get to tell the story, and this is precisely what we see when we read The Testament of Mary.

Colm Toibin gives us an historical figure, and not the eternal virgin, stone lawn statue, or even the blue robed dutiful mother, who, the Gospel says, wants to passively and obediently follow whatever God directs her to do.  We meet Mary after Jesus’ death.  She is a kept woman with two of her son’s disciples both feeding and guarding her.

What they are mostly doing is interrogating her, asking her to tell them about Jesus.  They always take her back to the beginning.  They get excited by the details, but then they become exasperated by the details, and then her refusal to add what they want her to add, or to hear her give an opinion that does not correspond with their view or what they want her to say.  She observes that after she dies, “it will be as though what I saw and felt did not happen.”  “I know,” she says, “ that he has written of things that neither he nor I saw.” They want what he said and did to live forever, but she only wants it to live in her heart. Not the Son of God, that is foolishness to her, but her son, the one who began associating with this bunch of misfits. They want to explain his conception. They want to take away her happiness as she heard his heart beating inside of her.  She was assaulted by their message of redemption for the world, and being saved from death. Then comes the resurrection.  They even reinvent that she was there at his side, and held his body, when in fact Toibin says the truth is she ran from the sight out of fear for her own life.  Finally, she says alright, I can say I was a witness, but I will also say “it was not worth it.  It was not worth it.”

Ultimately we feel for a mother who has lost her son. The crucifixion was a terrible tragedy. She feels rage, grief and fear.  Even if it is true, it comes at too high a cost for him–and her–to pay.  In the reading we hear how Mary recalls water being made into wine, but earlier she said no one inspected it first, and we hear of the dead brought back to life, but she reports Lazarus still does not look too good. Some of the familiar stories are here, but what she really wants in this story is for time to be pushed back.  She wants the days when the family was together. She wants her life back when she watched her son and husband walk toward the house discussing the days events. She wants to hold that son again, to feel his breath upon her neck. The breath of some disembodied spirit means nothing to her.

The holiday season reminds us of the grief and sadness, of bygone times, of things that life once held for us, and have taken away or passed from us as time bears our loved ones away.  Mary wants Jesus back.  Even as the Mandela girls once wanted their Dad.  They cannot regain what was lost. Most of us do not have to grieve an ultimate sacrifice, but we all suffer from what time and choice and chance have taken from us. Aging teaches us that time does not slow or stop for us.  Yet those past memories whether painful or pleasant also give us the opportunity to live forward. Who can comprehend the pain of those parents from Newtown, who marked the one year anniversary of the shootings yesterday? But they live on with the pain, some testifying that the world can change. We are called to build a new world that will bring about freedom and justice.  Mary thinks of the possibility of being spared, of going back, but then she also imagines  going to a different time and place when the world is filled with plenty.

I think the most interesting thing for me in the book Zealot was about Jesus’ brother James.  When we think of who led the early Christian church, we automatically say Peter and Paul.  Yet Aslan is convinced that this is an instance of winners telling the story.  The early church wanted to downplay James, a Jew from Jerusalem who represented a family dynasty in the succession of who should lead the church. Eventually the Catholic Church wanted James to disappear because his presence ruined their idea that Mary was a perpetual virgin.

The evidence from the book of Acts indicates James was the head of the church first centered in Jerusalem, but once he was killed and Jerusalem leveled, the power switched to Rome, and the story of leadership in the earliest days is forever changed.  Historians note that the siege of Jerusalem followed James’ martyrdom.   Even in Acts, James is often mentioned first as a pillar of the church.  But perhaps most critical is the message of James.  There is only one short book in the Christian scriptures that bears his name.  It was Martin Luther’s least favorite Biblical book because it emphasized works rather than grace.  James had a passionate concern for the poor. He taught that faith apart from works is dead. It was only a small part of the story, but it is a part that helped give Unitarianism its place in the Christian story, and is central to our faith today.

My Jesus is the one who implores us to live forward, working and living toward that world of justice that we may never see. Despite our losses, we see that our commitment of faith is like Jesus’ brother James: do justice.  We can see from Jesus to James to Mandela that oppression can drive the human heart toward freedom. Some make the ultimate sacrifice in that battle.  As Nelson Mandela said, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice.”  That time does not stop becomes evident especially when we reflect upon those lives that have passed from us.  Acts done to stop the pain of others, and the pain of the world may not bear immediate fruit.  Mary knows the pain of a lost son and grieves what she has lost.  We want those who are gone to come back because we felt comfort and security and love in their presence.  But they can still give us the story, the inspiration, the power to live forward. As we suffer losses, it becomes clearer that times passes, and we do, too.  We are only humble passengers on a voyage through.  It is not about us, but about the world going on, and us making it spin with a dream of justice and freedom for all.  That is what this church family dreams about, too, even as it passes on its faith to those who follow.

 

Closing Words – from Nelson Mandela

 

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

 

 

“My Credo” – A Lay Service – Speakers: Sue Demb and Chris Dame – December 8, 2013

“My Credo”  by Chris Dame – December 8, 2013 

First Parish Presentation

 

First, A few words of traditional wisdom …

“People differ in their discourse and profession about these matters, but men of sense are really but of one religion..

Pray my Lord, what religion is that which men of sense agree in …

 Madam, says the Earl…men of sense never tell it..

Anthony ASHLEY COOPER, 1ST EARL of Shaftsbury 1724

One religion is as true as another

Robert Burton – English clergyman 1640

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; 
Psalms 51 verse 17

A person’s spirit is the lamp of the LORD; it searches throughout one’s innermost being.

Proverbs 20:27 International Standard Version

 

And being asked by the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God cometh, he answered them and said,…lo, the kingdom of God is within you.

Luke 17:21, American Standard Bible

Jesus said, …”If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you…

Gospel of Thomas, saying three

No compulsion is there in religion

The Koran, Sura 2

Whatever good visits thee, it is of God; whatever evil visits thee it is of theyself

The Koran, Sura 4

The noble truth of suffering is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation , pain, grief and despair is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering – in brief the five attachments are suffering…

The Noble Truth of the Path leading to the cessation of suffering is this: the Noble eightfold path, right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livilihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration

First Sermon of the Buddha, Pali texts, 2nd c. BC

Love…endures all things..

I Corinthians v. 12, English Standard Version

Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

John 15:13, King James 2000 Bible

You shall not murder.

Exodus 20 verse 13 English Standard Version

 

I’m not OK – you’re not OK, and that’s OK

Rev William Sloan Coffin

I consider myself  a Hindu, Christian, Moslem, Jew, Buddhist and Confucian

Ghandi

A Unitarian very earnestly disbelieves what everyone else believes

W. Somerset Maugham

I was dumbfounded when several First Parish folks approached me and asked if I would agree to participate today. First because I am not an official member of your parish, in fact I’m not an official or unofficial Unitarian-Universalist at all. I’m a lapsed Salvation Army,  Methodist, Congregationist, humanist, agnostic, professional pessimist and wannabee Buddhist. I am a very private person. I feel very uncomfortable talking publicly about religion with people I know let alone strangers I hardly know.

Having said that I admit, I can’t seem to get religion – whatever that is – out of my bones. It’s just not acceptable for me to spend all my Sundays apart from a worshiping community.

As someone dipping his toes into the quest for a new spiritual community, I’m pleased to say that since assuming my modest seat in the left rear, I have felt that well, maybe, I’ll come again next week and see what happens. As a 67 year old religious sceptic, that’s substantial progress.

I am a lifelong religious seeker, a person whose being from the very beginning as a child, has been touched – one might even say infected – with the need to look for knowledge, wisdom, and a personal connection to the infinite.  My path for the search has been the world’s wisdom literature and my personal experience.

My readings today reflect the wisdom literature, and three factors have played a big part in shaping my personal religious views. They are: my childhood, war, and a rebellious streak that refuses to go away.  Let me explain.

First, my childhood. I am a “PK” , a Preacher’s Kid who was the oldest son of not one but two itinerant Christian ministers. My parents were veterans of desperately poor  depression households who struggled to be good Christians.

We changed parishes, communities and schools every two years, as they say – religiously. I attended schools in seven different states and one foreign country before graduating high school. My mantra became  “This will never work out”.

As the brother of two minister siblings, with a third who is married to a minister, and with numerous aunts and uncles  – “in the business” – I am a man with heavy religious baggage.

Despite what the apostle Paul said, I have found it very difficult to “put away childish things”.

My second formative experience was military service in Vietnam. I went to war and I have never really come home. I am not a pacifist and I believe in the sixth commandment. I demonstrated against the war, but, because of that third factor – a rebellious streak, despite a college religious vocations scholarship which would have guaranteed my acceptance into divinity school and avoidance of the draft, I rejected my father’s choice for me to become a Christian minster, and instead became a Marine officer in Vietnam, responsible for the lives of 30 young men.

Anyone who has not personally experienced the morally devastating, ethically-corrosive impact of placing young men in a kill or be killed situation, has no understanding of the long term impacts that such an experience has their lives, the people they meet, and  the communities to which they return.  Forty years later, I still struggle to make sense of the moral meaning of that experience.

I believe the indifference of the American population to such impacts continues today. While our country is in a permanent state of war borne by a few, there appears to be no personal sacrifice, even financial, demanded of ordinary citizens. Nor is there public acknowledgement of the endless stream of coffins and maimed bodies returning to America or the widows and orphans we create in the lands we occupy. Less than one in five of our legislators, the same people demanding military action in North Korea and a war with Iran, have ever served in the military. I dread the day those people will send my new grandson to die in the middle east.

My third personal factor is rebellion. I find it hard to accept conventional wisdom, whether from preachers, Democrats OR Republicans, liberals or conservatives, a single holy book, or the internet. Unlike Émile Coué, so far I’ve found that every day THEY do not seem to be getting better and better, so why should I listen to them? All in all, I think Groucho Marx had it right “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

So what does that leave me for a religious credo? ,

The wisdom literature I read sums up my religious perspective at this stage of my life:

  • all religions contain elements of truth and are worthy of respect
  • Don’t believe everything you hear
  • look within to discover glimpses of universal truth
  • Buddha was right – life is suffering; the difficult key to escaping this is detachment
  • Service to others, accumulating merit in the Buddhist perspective, is what life is  all about
  • Love conquers all
  • there is no pie in the sky but personally, I look forward to some VERY interesting events

 

Having said all that, in the context of my developing relations with this religious community – provided of course you keep up the good work – I confess that I will probably be compelled to modify my Groucho Marx rule.

I may become a member.

 

END

 

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“My Credo” – A Lay Service – December 8, 2013

Sue Demb –

Good morning. My name is Sue Demb and I have been a member of First Parish for over 30 years. Today I am going to speak about my credo, but, before I do I would like to tell you a few things about myself, which have shaped my credo. Most importantly, I’m an eternal optimist; tomorrow is a new day, and there is always hope that things can get better. On the other hand, I’m an introvert; I enjoy involvement with other people, but I always need to return to a quiet environment to regenerate. So I’m your basic optimistic introvert. You can add a little perfectionism to that, too.

Growing up in Dedham, MA, I attended the Episcopal Church, where I was told what to believe. My concept of God was a stern being keeping track of everything I did wrong, including the image of a large open book. I don’t remember worrying too much about this. When I was 13, I took confirmation classes and was confirmed. Interestingly, once I left home for college, I never returned to the Episcopal Church.

Joe and I got married in 1969 and raised two sons, Jon and Andrew. I’ll tell you how Jon brought us here in a few minutes. Both are married with children, giving us one of the best perks of aging, four delightful grandchildren, who continue to bring new energy and enthusiasm to our family.

For much of my life, I was a private piano teacher and loved working with children, guiding them on their musical journey and sharing my love of music with them. I retired in 2007 and now run an online business with Joe, selling photography products that he designs. I do the shipping, bookkeeping and website design. It’s part time and gives us opportunities for recreation and quiet living. We have a dog named Sadie and a cat named Sadie; both are nine years old and both like to spend time with their people. We take Sadie dog on 2 or 3 walks a day, which makes nature a big part of every day.

How did I find my way to First Parish? Joe and I needed a new place to go after Jon asked about church. His friend Michael went to church, and Jon wanted to go, too. I wasn’t interested in returning to Episcopalianism, and Joe wasn’t interested in returning to Judaism. We came here, found something completely different, and my spiritual journey began.

One of the first things I noticed in the building was the church covenant, which, at that time, was hanging on the wall outside the sanctuary. On it was the name Thomas Bartlett, who came to America in 1634 with his brothers, John and Richard, landing in Newburyport. I am descended from Richard. Such an odd coincidence made me feel I had come home, though I didn’t really know much about Unitarian Universalism. It was like connecting to an echo from my past. Stranger yet, people from Watertown went and settled in Contentment, which became Dedham, my home town.

We attended church regularly, but it was years before this felt like “church” to me. The sanctuary didn’t look much like the church I grew up in, which had stone walls and stained glass windows. Furthermore there was no doctrine to be followed, no creed. But the people were really nice, there were lots of young families with children, and the sermons were interesting. Over time I began to get the idea that I could form my own set of beliefs, my own credo, and this is what I have created so far.

I believe in a universal force governing all that exists. Some people call it God, some call it Nature, but for me it is nameless. Perhaps it is too big to be named. When I think about outer space, black holes, galaxies, and planets that are billions of years old, how can all that be contained in a name? The seasons, the weather at its best and worst, the power of earthquakes, tornadoes and volcanoes all inspire awe and respect for some kind of amazing force.

I believe that loving relationships with others, joy in the world around me and helping others serve to make me feel safe and secure in a troubled world. The world has always been a violent and dangerous place, and it is imperative to counter-balance that with peace and harmony. I see war and hate all around me and, when I lament about the sorry state of the world, I am reminded that people have been persecuting and killing each other since the beginning of time. So I look for ways to find peace and security through loving relationships with friends and family, through seeking joy in the world around me, and through helping others. These things allow me to feel grounded and safe in a world that could change at any moment.

I believe that Nature is a source of beauty and inspiration that rejuvenates me. Being out in nature lifts my spirit and makes me feel part of something much bigger than myself. No matter what season, there is always something to connect with. Who can ignore the awakening that is Spring, when flowers, trees, birds and people emerge from the cold of winter and come to life again? When we go on dog walks in the spring, my eyes delight in all the new growth, and my nose tunes in to the most amazing smells that are all around. It’s like a wonderful gift, and makes me feel as if I, too am coming to life again after a long, cold sleep. The lazy days of summer envelope me with warmth, inviting me to spend time outdoors. They offer a time of transition from all the new growth of spring to what I call seasoned growth. The leaves gradually turn a darker green, the flowers and vegetables reach their peak, and the heat makes me long for cooler days. Fall presents me with a daily update on beautiful colors and smells, making it a joy to go out each day and see what there is to see. I love shuffling my feet through fallen leaves; the sound makes me smile. Even winter, gives me gorgeous beauty when the tree branches are covered with snow and the earth takes on a special hush. Yes, it can be cold and nasty, but often it is cold and exhilarating. Now you know I’m a dog walker and go out several times every day to take Sadie for a walk. Sadie has opened my eyes and my heart to the beauty and mystery of the earth in all its seasons, and for that I am grateful.

I believe that music and art connect me to generations of inspiration and beauty which brings peace to my spirit. Art lifts me above my every-day life and brings me to a place of peace and comfort through vision. Joe and I have been visiting museums almost every week for a little over a year. I don’t know much about art, but I find that, as I look at an exhibit, I feel this wonderful sense of calm. I see the world through the artist’s eyes, see the emotions in the work, and feel a connection to this person who may be long-gone. It amazes me that these paintings may be centuries old, but they continue to provide pleasure to my modern eyes. It reminds me of Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious” and the idea that all humans share certain experiences and emotions throughout time, as if people don’t really change that much. They can always connect to universal values that all mankind shares.

The same is true of music, which brings me comfort and peace through sound. As a pianist, I enjoy creating music. Though it takes me a long time to learn a piece, I reach a point where I can focus on musical expression instead of playing the notes. Then my mind focuses intensely on what I am hearing and, from somewhere deep within, I know just how I want the music to sound. Once, when I was studying piano in my 50s, my teacher said, “That phrase is a little flat. Can you do something with it?” Not knowing what would happen, I played it again, listening as hard as I could. He said, “Yes, that’s it; play it like that.” I have no idea what I did differently, but I learned that careful listening is the key to beautiful playing.

I don’t play the piano very much any more, but I do love singing in the choir. When church starts in the Fall, I always realize how much I missed singing with the choir over the summer. I need both art and music to balance the busyness of every-day life and bring peace to my spirit.

I believe that wonder is essential for a complete life, and children remind me of how to experience it. Children and grandchildren remind me of the importance of a sense of wonder. The delight and excitement that children express in the every-day world help me stop and take notice of just how wonderful the world really is. They help me notice that which I have become accustomed to and tend to ignore. This Fall, I loved seeing a toddler walking in the park, grasping a colored leaf in each hand, discovering this brand new thing. Looking at her, I felt her sense of wonder and smiled. Keeping a sense of wonder alive in adults is a real blessing, and children help me remember how to experience it.

Finally, I believe that learning must continue throughout life, enriching mind and spirit. It is through growth and learning that my mind feels alive and my spirit evolves. I believe that living and learning go together to sustain my existence. I am currently relearning Spanish, after more than 50 years, and I find it exhilarating, as if I’m exercising the most important muscle in my body. Taking a cue from my grandchildren, I’m trying to learn it the way they learned English: word by word, phrase by phrase, and, someday, sentences. It is the process of learning that enriches my mind and spirit, not the subject. There have been other subjects in the past, and there will be more in the future.

Putting my credo all together:

I believe in a universal force that governs all things

I believe that loving relationships with others, joy in the world around me and helping others serve to make me feel safe and secure in a troubled world

I believe that Nature is a source of beauty and inspiration that rejuvenates me I believe that music and art connect me to generations of inspiration and beauty which brings peace to my spirit

I believe that wonder is essential for a complete life, and children remind me of how to experience it I believe that learning must continue throughout life, enriching mind and spirit.

 

“Cinderella Man and Me” by Andrea Greenwood – December 1, 2013

Cinderella Man and Me

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood

December 1, 2013

The First Parish of Watertown

 

Reading    This is not a reading so much as a story about the boxer, Jim Braddock, with a short quote from a movie about his life.

Like something out of a storybook, “invincible” Max Baer lost the heavyweight championship of the world to the once seemingly washed up Jimmy Braddock on June 13th 1935. It was one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. How did it all happen? What amazing series of events even got Jim Braddock a title shot? Max Baer was supposed to hold the title for years, and Jim Braddock was a faceless preliminary fighter whose biggest fight was trying for the light heavyweight title six years earlier, and losing.  And that had been his peak.

Now Braddock was twenty nine.  He had a very hard jaw and lots of grit but not much more. He was so not in demand as an opponent that he was forced to go on relief to feed his wife and three children.  His manager started using him as a show – a guy who would last a few rounds before getting knocked out by the favored boxer.  It was during the Depression, and his family was hungry, and so Braddock didn’t say no.  He was put in the ring with some heavy weights and outlasted a few, and that’s how he ended up in the ring with Max Baer.  If you are interested in boxing, there is a lot more to the story, but I am not, so I will skip that part, except to say that Baer did not want this fight.  He was younger, heavier, and taller, and concerned that he would hurt the old, washed up Braddock.  The bettors agreed with Baer – the odds were 15-1 in his favor.

But no one told Braddock.  He trained relentlessly for this battle.  For the first five rounds, he attacked Baer, who laughed, waited for him to tire himself out, and then decided to flatten the old man.  But four rounds later, Braddock was still standing.  He just would not fall.  Later Braddock said that Baer was punching  “So hard that if I had electric light bulbs in my toes, they would have lit up!”  But Braddock would not give up.  After eleven rounds, Baer did.  Braddock, much to the amazement of his cringing wife, had won.  This brief excerpt from a movie about Braddock takes place afterwards, when he knows his money troubles are over:  His wife is relieved, and his manager says:

Listen. A little bird told me to check the evening editions. Let’s see what we got.

Boxer Jim Braddock has come back from the dead to change the face of courage in our nation.

Sporty Lewis wrote that.

Get this: In a land that’s downtrodden, Braddock’s comeback is giving hope to every American.

People ready to throw in the towel are finding inspiration in their new hero.

As Damon Runyon has already written, he is truly the Cinderella Man.

Braddock’s wife, Mae, asks “Cinderella Man?” and the manager says, “Yeah, Cinderella Man.”  To which Mae replies. “I like it.  It’s kind of girly.”  And Jim Braddock, reading the article, says “Look at this!  This is me!  Cinderella Man” while in the background, his manager says “Oh brother.  This is gonna be fun.”

Sermon

It is the Sunday after Thanksgiving, which seems a kind of nostalgic time to me.  There is that whole sense of people as homing pigeons, with the heart set to return some place, to the nest.  I think of home and hearth, and idealized versions of such – like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  Last year I spent a bit of time researching the connection between Unitarianism and children’s literature, and various aspects of what I learned found its way into sermons.  In May, I talked to a congregation in Bridgewater a bit about Louisa May Alcott, and mentioned that my own childhood plan involved growing up to be Alcott.  Then, in the receiving line I met a wonderful woman in her eighties, who said, as she stuck out her hand to shake mine “ I never wanted to be Louisa.  I wanted to be Jo!   It affected my whole life!”  Intrigued, I asked her how.  And she was quite specific.  In high school, she refused to take French.  She had to take German.  Why?  Because she needed to be like Jo, and ready to meet her own Professor Baehr.  Although her insistence on German was really a devotion to impersonating a fictional character, her determination caused the high school administrators to see her as fiercely independent. She became a person who forged her own way rather than following a path.  Because she learned German, people assumed she was a serious scholar.  Everything flowed from there.  And it really did shape her whole life.

I was still absorbing this story, turning it over in my mind and realizing that my vision of being like Louisa May Alcott was actually of being like Jo, too, when a young man shook my hand and said, “I never cared about Little Women, but I loved Little Men.  No one ever talks about Little Men, but I thought it was great.”  I agreed that no one talks about it, and said I thought maybe it was because there was no movie of it, but I realized that I have always liked Little Men and Jo’s Boys better myself.  I think often when we say “Little Women,” we are in fact referring to the whole series, to the way we remember our own childhood exposure to not just the books, but to everything they have come to represent.  I have never forgotten our Camp Fire Girls troop attending a big screening of the film – the one in which Katharine Hepburn played Jo.  It was in the high school auditorium – a foreign land to us nine year olds.  The film broke part way through, and we suffered in confusion for a while as people tried to fix it.  Then a tall, icy gray woman in a tweed suit announced that it was over and we should go home and read the book because that was better for us anyway.  I was incensed that she didn’t apologize, and I could not understand why she thought we were there.  How could she not realize that it was because we had read the book that we wanted to see the movie?! And so part of the meaning of Little Women became, for me, consciously witnessing the judgment and cluelessness of authority figures.  It was a beginning to realize that we are not necessarily known as people when we are children.  It made the book that much more precious.

For many years our Christmas pageant here featured a scene from Little Women, and every time four of our young people play the March girls, sitting around the Christmas tree and complaining about having no presents, I think of that woman who essentially scolded us for wanting to see the movie.  It makes the children that much nobler as they recount their desire for drawing pencils or sheet music and say, “It’s so dreadful to be poor.” Their highly principled parents seem to have abandoned them, and told them it was for their own good.  All this was going through my mind in the receiving line back in Bridgewater, but what I said to this man was that Alcott did not particularly like girls, and that is probably why her boy stories are more fun – but I thought maybe there was a cultural thing against talking about stories in which boys have feelings.  Boys are supposed to communicate through sports.  He said, “Yeah.  Once I tried to talk to my friend about the movie Stand By Me, and he made a face at me and told me that was wussy.”

When I am filling in at a church, greeting people afterwards is always intense.  I have these incredible conversations with people who I do not know, and who yet feel that I do know them enough that they can share fairly deeply. Everything is compressed in a way that it is not when we are in our regular environments.  It is a little bit like these holiday weekends, full of family and old stories and a weird combination of being more yourself than you are anywhere, and frustrated that you can’t make yourself understood; that everyone still sees you a way that you don’t think of as you.  I loved meeting these folks.  They had great stories to tell.  And these exchanges in the receiving line also had me wondering about myself.  Why had I thought of the author as the role model, while this older woman had thought of the character? Why had I accepted Little Women as a touchstone when the stories I really liked were set at Plumfield, the progressive school run by Jo and Professor Baehr?  So many people talk about Alcott and her role in liberating women, but what about her role in freeing men – or children?

Then another man shook my hand and said “I bet I am one of the only people left who grew up reading Horatio Alger stories.  I still remember them.  My desk had that old fashioned inkwell in it, and I was so lost in my story that when the girl in front of me tossed her hair, the end of her braid went in the ink, and she thought I did it to her until I showed her the splash she made on my page.  She knew I wouldn’t have wrecked my Alger book!”

This man did not mention Horatio Alger out of thin air.  I had talked about him in the sermon that day.  Louisa May Alcott thought that Alger’s rags-to-riches books were stupid  – that characters like newsboys and bootblacks were inappropriate for children, and that the stories were too dramatic.  People’s lives aren’t really that adventurous, she said.  This is kind of funny, if you think about it, because she was actually like one of the characters in Alger’s book — the impoverished daughter of a man who could never hold a job or finish anything he started, she had to move frequently as a child as the family boarded, borrowed, and bartered their way through life. She and her sisters had worked as children.  She went off to work as a nurse in the Civil War, almost died, wrote about the experience, became wealthy and famous, and suddenly had become very genteel, as well as judgmental.

So I left church thinking about all these stories, and about gender, especially.  Children’s literature is one of the few fields that women gained control of early on, and so it is not unusual to hear Alcott’s contempt for “formulaic” stories repeated. A certain kind of middle class, individualized and respectable fiction became the only kind of appropriate book – my grandmother repeatedly pronounced the Bobbsey twins and Nancy Drew trash, but I loved them.  These conversations in the receiving line had me thinking about the cost of promoting only one kind of story, or of saying “Little Women” when we are actually picturing boys.  I have three sons, and no daughters – it seems like the kind of thing I should have thought about.  This man in the receiving line was so sincere, saying he really enjoyed Little Men, but no one talks about that book.  Why? Horatio Alger’s name gets used as shorthand for junk, but isn’t it offering for kids the same message we claim, religiously:  Give the people hope, not threats of hell?  Alger left the Unitarian pulpit because he was gay, and in a culture where that was inadmissible, he acted out, and paid the price.  But he also redeemed himself.  He moved to New York City after the Civil War and worked with homeless boys, and started writing stories for and about them, to help them believe that circumstances could change, and that things would get better.  Yet last year, when the UU World magazine editor contacted me, asking me to write about Unitarian connections to children’s literature, she preemptively said, “But don’t touch Horatio Alger.”  It made me sad.  It’s like the Cinderella story without the happy ending; the fairy tale with all the scary, bad, lonely parts, and no magic.

It was through researching Horatio Alger that I found the term “Cinderella Man.”   It was in a scholarly article about boys and fairy tales, and it led me to the original source of the term: Damon Runyon, the reporter who invented the name for the boxer Jim Braddock, — a man too old, too poor and too pathetic to win a fight; who then went on to do just that.  It’s a story that could have easily been one of Horatio Alger’s, had he lived to see the Depression.   I had never heard of Damon Runyon until my father died fifteen years ago.  There was a good sized obituary of my dad in the Boston Globe, and one of the people quoted said he was “a character, a real Damon Runyon kind of guy.”  I had no idea what that meant.  Was he saying something nice, or making fun of him, or what?  To tell the truth, even after I read about Runyon, I wasn’t sure what it meant to be called “a real Damon Runyon kind of guy.”  But when I found this term Cinderella Man, it clicked. The good boy, neglected, cleaning up other people’s messes and believing something good will happen – but actually MAKING that good himself.  It is a plot, but it is also occasionally true – and it provides strength, and hope; the encouragement to keep trying. Stories like that help us change the narrative.  In a story, when there are insurmountable odds, we never really doubt that they will be defied. The hero will become his own man, find the path that gives him the keys to the kingdom.  If he wasn’t going to, no one would have written the story!  This is what children’s literature – and, incidentally, religion – is all about.  We can change!  Anything can happen!  The future is not determined by the past.  In fairy tales that transformation can be literal – frogs can turn into princes – but that isn’t really the point.  Wasn’t the woman who refused to take French as a child; who insisted on studying German – wasn’t her life changed because of a book?  Stories remind us not to see the world in stark, objective terms.  We do not have to be the label that others put on us.  Nothing is inevitable.  As Shel Silverstein said, “Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”

Anything can be.  Including this: The notoriously homophobic rapper Eminem has a song called Cinderella Man.  It’s not new – it came out seven years ago, but I stumbled upon it last year, when I was studying Horatio Alger and fairy tales for boys. Two of my sons love rap, but when I asked if they knew it, they thought I was making it up.  Eminem and Cinderella? It must be a joke. Cinderella is for girls, and rap is a decidedly guy thing, especially if you are talking about Eminem, who has a fairly unimpeachable record of misogyny, which seems only to be getting worse.  I actually like the song, which starts with  “You know, technically, I’m not even really supposed to be here right now, So , might as well make the most of it.”  In the background, others are saying Amen, and Eminem goes on to say he must be lucky, because some of us don’t get a second chance, and he isn’t gonna blow his.  “I feel like I can do anything now,” he says, before asking who can “smash an hourglass, grab the sand, take his hands and cup ‘em; spit a rhyme to freeze the clock, take the hands of time and cuff ‘em?”  Cinderella man.  The song goes on to compare his own life to Jim Braddock’s, although Braddock is never mentioned.  It is just that whole impossible story of coming back from the dead; of no one believing it was possible for you to make it.  But you do, and it saves more than just yourself.  Everyone else who felt kicked down starts to believe in his ability to stand up.  It turns out Eminem is a Universalist.  Of the kid who gets up when no one thinks he can, he wrote “That boy’s hot enough to melt Hell, burn Satan too;

He’s been fried and his ashes put back together with glue,
See you can hate ’em, he don’t blame you; frankly he would too,
But this game could ill-afford to lose him, how bout you?”

One of the consequences of trying to make all stories respectable and middle class is that we do end up with public personalities like Eminem, or like Richie Incognito – -the racist Miami Dolphin who bullied his own teammate.  Who do you identify with if everyone in the story is leading a predictable, safe, plot-driven life; if there are no gritty urban tales of disaster; no real drama for survival; no all –consuming anger at the unbelievable lack of fairness?  People died all the time in fairy tales, and they die all the time in some streets, too.  But without stories that acknowledge that, we get victims who are only allowed to triumph by becoming bullies.  The only narrative that allows an escape from victimhood is to become a star, celebrating the ability to victimize.  Most of Eminem’s work is like that.  But this song isn’t.  Instead it reminds us that men need a Cinderella story too; and that the Cinderella myth is not about rescue.  It is not a passive story of waiting for someone to take you away. The fairy tale is about escape, into a better world, where things are fair and we all have a chance, and where we are strong enough to stand up for ourselves even when others don’t see us as having value, no matter who we are.  We have to always be able to see ourselves in one another.

A funny thing happened when I was writing this sermon.  I was thinking about the young man from the congregation in Bridgewater, who talked about Stand By Me and Little Men, and I picked up the Alcott book.  Does anyone know how Little Men ends?  I hadn’t remembered.  It turns out that the last chapter is called Thanksgiving.  The Plumfield School has just concluded a six month experiment in coeducation, transforming what had been a middle class boys preparatory school into a home for a wide group of children, including an orphan and a boy who has been in serious legal trouble, along with girls from the extended March family.  Mrs. Jo and Professor Baehr preside over the whole operation, with benevolence and a bit of righteousness, as Jo points out her success to those who doubted the wisdom of her plan.  They did not think girls belonged in a real school, or that troubled boys should mix with those headed to Harvard, but Jo has proved them all wrong.  After the feast, during which every child points out his or her contribution, the holiday ends with a play performed by the children for their visiting families.  What is the play?  Cinderella, of course.

I couldn’t have planned it better.  Sometimes grace finds us.  Who we have been is not all we will be.  Life may yet hold new excitement for us all.  So may it be.

Benediction     from Louisa May Alcott, Little Men

For love is a flower that grows in any soil, works its sweet miracles undaunted by autumn frost or winter snow, blooming fair and fragrant all the year, and blessing those who give and those who receive.

 

“Memory’s Mantra” by Mark W. Harris – November 17, 2013

“Memory’s Mantra”  by Mark W. Harris

November 17, 2013 –  First Parish of Watertown

 

Call to Worship – “Rune” by Muriel Rukeyser

 

The word in the bread feeds me,

The word in the moon leads me,

The word in the seed breeds me,

The word in the child needs me.

The word in the sand builds me,

The word in the fruit fills me,

The word in the body mills me,

The word in the war kills me.

The word in the man takes me,

The word in the storm shakes me,

The word in the work makes me,

The word in the woman rakes me,

The word in the word wakes me.

 

Reading – from “Repetition of a Mantram” by Eknath Easwaran

 

 

On festival days in India you will often see a huge elephant, [clothed] in gold and gorgeous cloth, carrying an image of the Lord Krishna on its back through the village streets. Everyone enjoys the sight: the musicians with their drums and cymbals in front, then the beast slowly lumbering along and the devotees behind, all on their way to the temple.

But there can be one difficulty. Stalls of fruits, vegetables, and sweets line the narrow, crooked streets, and the trunk of an elephant, as you may know, rarely stays still. It sways back and forth, up and down, constantly. So when the procession comes abreast of a fruit stall, the elephant seizes a shelled coconut or two, opens his cavernous mouth, and tosses them in. At another stall the big fellow twists his trunk round a bunch of bananas suspended from the roof. The mouth opens again, the whole bunch goes in with a thud . . . you hear a gulp . . . and that’s the end of it.

The humble people who own these stalls cannot afford this kind of loss, and to prevent it the man in charge, the mahout, asks the elephant to grasp a firm bamboo shaft in his trunk. Though not sure why, the elephant, out of love for his mahout, does as he is told. Now the procession can pass safely through the streets. The elephant steps right along with his stick held upright in a steady trunk, not tempted to feast on mangoes or melons because he has something to hold on to.

The human mind is rather like the trunk of an elephant. It never rests . . . it goes here, there, ceaselessly moving through sensations, images, thoughts, hopes, regrets, impulses. Occasionally it does solve a problem or make necessary plans, but most of the time it wanders at large, simply because we do not know how to keep it quiet or profitably engaged.  But what should we give it to hold on to?

Of late, the ancient word mantra has had considerable exposure on talk shows and in the Sunday supplements. To many it may conjure up an exotic image of flowing robes, garlands, and incense. It may seem to be something impractical and otherworldly, perhaps a bit magical and mysterious. Actually, just the opposite holds true. The mantra – under other names, to be sure – has been known in the West for centuries, and there need not be anything secret or occult about it. The mantra stands open to all. And since it can calm our hearts and minds, it is about as practical as anything can be.

If you have preconceptions about using a mantra, let me ask you to put them aside and give it a personal trial. Why take someone else’s word for it? Enter the laboratory of your mind and perform the experiment. Then you will be in a position to judge for yourself, and nothing can be as persuasive as that.

A mantra is a spiritual formula of enormous power that has been transmitted from age to age in a religious tradition. The users, wishing to draw upon this power that calms and heals, silently repeat the words as often as possible during the day, each repetition adding to their physical and spiritual well-being. In a sense, that is all there is to a mantra. . .  Those who have tried it – saints, sages, and ordinary people too – know from their own experience its marvelous potency.

We find a clue to the workings of the mantra in the popular etymology which links the word to the roots man, “the mind,” and tri, “to cross.” The mantra, repeated regularly for a long time, enables us to cross the sea of the mind.

An apt image, for the mind very much resembles a sea. Ever-changing, it is placid one day, turbulent the next. Awesome creatures lurk below in the unconscious – fears and animosities, desires and conflicts. Each of us drifts about on the surface, blown by typhoons and carried by currents, in a rudderless little boat called “I.” With such vast and treacherous waters before us, with no glimpse at all of the far shore, can we ever hope to make the crossing without some help?

The secret of meditation is simple: you become what you meditate on. When you use an inspirational passage every day in meditation, you are driving the words deep into your consciousness. Eventually they become an integral part of your personality, which means they will find constant expression in what you do, what you say, and what you think.” – Eknath Easwaran

 

Sermon

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”    Many Unitarian Universalists find that little 17th century bedtime prayer for a child that was printed in the New England Primer very disturbing for the message it seems to impart.  Does it terrorize children that God might come in the night and kill them?  Should we give children the message that life is so fragile that they can be gone at a moment’s notice?  I learned that prayer and recited it every night when I was little.  I don’t recall that I felt frightened trying to go to sleep.  If anything the repetition of the same thing gave me comfort and reassurance that all was well.  In fact, it does ask God to keep me in God’s care.   You could contrast this traditional children’s prayer with the one that Andrea learned from her grandmother.  Many of you have heard this before: “The sun has gone down; The friendly dark has come; Now it is time to sleep. Let me think over all I have done; The good deeds to do again; The bad deeds to forego and forget.; Now I shall sleep, and grow while I sleep,

And tomorrow I shall be happy.”  This prayer invites us to a friendly dark rather than a scary one, a letting go of bad experiences, and a celebration of good ones to do again. And finally, the frame of consciousness that tomorrow will be better, and you will find happiness.  Even if you are interested in psychoanalyzing my wife and me, we won’t go there, but it is informative that Andrea is a more positive person than I am; one who sees the good while I am more pessimistic.  I sometimes characterize myself as a Calvinist Unitarian.

Today’s sermon is about the messages we repeat in our heads, and what effect they have on us as people.  I do think the religion of my childhood, as contrasted to my wife Andrea’s had a profound effect on me.  In addition to the genetic predilections, and dysfunctional family dynamics that we all have, there are the strong message we carry in our heads based on the experiences we have and what we learn.  When you say, “Our Father,” over and over again in prayer, you begin to conceptualize God as a man. But for others it can be a caring presence that holds you when you are in pain.  When you hear that you are a no good sinner over and over again, you may see life in slightly more negative terms than one who hears that people have inherent worth and dignity.

I am thankful every day that I am a Unitarian Universalist.  What is the message or mantra that you keep repeating in your head?  Some of the messages I repeated as a child were:  I’m no good.  I am a failure.  It is easy to become the messages we repeat about ourselves.  Contrast those messages with: Life is a joy. Life has many opportunities. I am doing the best I can.  I am loveable.  We all know people who repeat the negative – because I have been hurt, I have a right to be miserable.  But for those who repeat that they can begin again in love, perhaps the cycle can be broken.

This is of course what a church or even a country should do, too. We invoke shared passages to bring us back to our best selves. In a couple of days we will mark the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, some of the foundational words we aspire to as a nation.  It is the New Testament of America that builds upon the Old Testament of Jefferson’s declaration that all people are created equal. I believe the Gettysburg Address is the longest single literary piece I have ever memorized. Learning by rote was once much more common, and so the generations before me, especially memorized all kinds of poetry and other passages.  My father and mother used to repeat things all the time – “How would you to go up in a swing, up in the air so blue??”  or “Listen my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” Yet these memorized passages are hardly known now as Longfellow and Stevenson fade into the past.

Yet Lincoln’s most famous speech has not faded, partly because it articulates the kind of democracy we aspire to, one where “there is no permanent and real welfare for any one portion in Society except in connection with the welfare of all the rest of society.”  In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln said we cannot let this body politic be broken by disunion, but through the abolition of slavery we will build a world where there are no slaves, and so using words first articulated by the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, Lincoln said “we . . . resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.  Is there a cloud of knowing saying, “of the people, by the people, for the people?”

When I was growing up I used to memorize all kinds of Bible passages from the Beatitudes to the Lord’s Prayer to the 23rd Psalm.  The church gave little prizes as rewards for memorization.  I liked the gifts, and memorization was a useful takeaway for a mind that responds well to information that can readily be absorbed. The verses still provide a kind of mantra to me whenever I am stressed out and need to feel at peace, and were probably an antidote to the sinful faith I was being spoon-fed.  Phrases like “Blessed are the peace makers”, “deliver us from evil”, and “he leadeth me beside the still waters,” helped assure me that life could offer people and experiences where peace is a goal, good things can happen, and there are natural places where I could find solace.

And so when difficult times unfolded, and I felt like the situation I was in was out of control, I could repeat over and over, “lead me beside still waters, lead me beside still waters.”   A few years ago one of our interns was struggling with having periods of silence in our service.  Especially since he had a Christian orientation, I suggested he respond to the non-stop buzzing in his brain with a recitation of the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer.  These familiar passages would not only get him through the silence in a convenient time frame, but they might also be a pathway to meaning and value as inspirational words to live by.

In history religious ritual has generally been seen as indispensable in deepening spiritual insight. The repetition of rituals instills religious values and attitudes in the lives of the worshippers. Ritual also expresses and emphasizes the things that bind a faith community together, and through ritual both individuals and communities make visible their most basic religious needs, values and aspirations.  We can see with our rituals like the water service or flower communion that we aspire to the many becoming one, we value unity in diversity.  Lighting the chalice means we are seekers after truth, and also believe that new truths can and will be found.

Our rituals also consist of repeated words.  For us that includes a covenant that says, love is the spirit of this church.  A similar Universalist covenant says, love is the doctrine of this church.  Right away we verbalize that our identity is not grounded in beliefs about God, Jesus or salvation, but rather in living the right kind of life.  Love is our spirit and so it is about respecting individual integrity and freedom, and doing unto others to build up the beloved community, and so we repeat, “service is our law.”  Then we conclude: To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

Could it be that our covenant, the words we repeat to reflect our reasons for being together, is a kind of mantra?  A few weeks ago Johanna Swift Hart shared a beautiful, modern update of the 23rd Psalm as our chalice lighting.  This reflected the freedom of UUs to find meaning in rewording traditional passages, but also reflects the enduring value of ancient texts to inspire us.  Sometimes it may seem that UUs react strongly to any traditional text, and always aspire to something new, but it is usually because we want those words to accurately reflect the living values that inspire us.  Saying “Our Father” or “Hail Mary, Full of Grace” may be meaningless.  It may have been something rote to give comfort to many over the centuries, but in our personal context it reflected a false premise or personal disappointment about who or what is holy.  We like our religious inspiration to be direct, and not filtered or interpreted through a church tradition or a priest.  We are the ultimate believers in Luther’s priesthood of all believers.  Everyone can read sacred scriptures for themselves and find meaning and inspiration.

This is reflected in a conversation from J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.  At one point Franny prays the Jesus Prayer “without ceasing.” She cannot stop saying it, and eventually it leads to a mental breakdown, and she leaves college and goes home.  But she is not just mouthing the words. It has become became integrated into the rhythm of her heartbeat. In a conversation with her brother Zooey, he says, “God almighty, Franny,” . . . “If you’re going to say the Jesus Prayer, at least say it to Jesus, and not to St. Francis and Seymour and Heidi’s grandfather all wrapped up in one. Keep him in mind if you say it, and him only, and him as he was and not as you’d like him to have been.”  The idea is that Jesus wanted it to be a direct understanding that the kingdom of God dwells in you, and you don’t need anyone to mediate that understanding. The Jesus Prayer has one aim, and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-Consciousness.

Have you committed certain inspirational passages to memory?  What are those?  (List . . . . Say . . . )  Could there be some kind of spiritual discipline involving memorization that might heal us and help make us feel more whole?  We have already implied that the relationship between religion and repetition is an important one.  While we generally know that memorization is an outmoded way of learning, we also know that it has a traditional kind of power. Ancient scriptures have inspired people across social and economic lines for countless generations.  If they did not have a powerful rhetoric congregations would not have remembered the teachings and passed them down.

One way this was done was through repetition. Initially it had to be done orally because most people were illiterate. Repetition was important because that way the message was not forgotten.  You say it over and over again, and it becomes part of your being.  A few weeks ago I looked at a passage from the 93rd Sura in the Koran, which reflected Muhammad’s life.  It uses the technique of repetition.  “You shall be gratified with what your Lord will give you. Did he not find you an orphan and give you shelter? Did he not find you in error and guide you? Did he not find you poor and enrich you?”   But it has to have personal spiritual power for you. It can be tedious and meaningless, like the Jesus prayer if it feels like you are saying it with all those layers.  Too often UUs react to repetition because it seems boring and tedious and meaningless.

Most of us know the power of repeated or memorized phrases in some way in our lives.  Maybe when you are alone, a few lines from a song enters your thoughts.  “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”  And you remember the chant.   Did you hear John Lennon’s mantra in your college room or at the peace rally, and the personal feeling became magnified to a community, to a people.  Those songs may fill an inspirational void or become a longing for what you dream about for this nation or this world.  Maybe you simply repeat the word, peace, peace, peace.

At the recent history convocation I attended, one of our theme speakers recounted the UU journey through the civil rights era.  Two of my elder colleagues had been in Selma in 1965 when UU minister James Reeb was beaten and killed by racist bigots.  The two colleagues were sobbing as they recounted the experience.  Our younger African American speaker embraced these two white men as his heroes, and I could hear a refrain of “We shall overcome some day.”  Words and phrases become powerful mantras of action, a longing for justice in the world.

We long for words to remember to give us power, and words to we remember that bring us comfort and connection to our past, our family, and what we have learned and value about the world. The other night Andrea was telling me about all the poetry her grandmother learned growing up.  Late in life, she became blind and could no longer read. When she could no longer see the printed word, she recalled the oral tradition to inspire and comfort and connect. Not being able to see did not prevent her from being connected in her soul to all that she had found to be good in life.

Like other ancient texts, the Bhagavad-Gita also employs repetition to convey deep meaning.  In the Gita, Krishna uses worldly analogies to describe how all-pervasive the soul is:  “Weapons do not cut it, Fires do not burn it, Waters do not wet it, Wind does not wither it,” and then repeats, “It cannot be cut or burned, It cannot be wet or withered, it is immoveable, it is timeless.”  (2:23-24) Gandhi had repeated sacred lines from the Gita at daily prayer at his ashram. Eknath Easwaran, who developed a way of meditating, modeled on Gandhi’s example, witnessed this. He eventually immigrated to San Francisco, and founded the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation.

The center still teaches his program of spiritual living which centers on memorizing inspirational passages from mystics or scriptures from all the world’s religious traditions.  You repeat these passages slowly in your mind, and they become like drops of water dripping into your deep well of consciousness.  You absorb them, and they become part of your soul.  What I like about this approach is the intentionality, and affirmation of who you will be in the world, and how you will see things.  By repeating the words, we focus our attention. Then we begin to become what we meditate.  Think of the power of repetitive advertising, and transform that to a reflection of universal consciousness. Teresa of Avila, a Christian mystic, says her “heart is full of joy with love.”   Kabir, the Hindu and Sufi mystic says: “As the river gives itself into the ocean, what is inside me moves inside you.”   And Rumi says,  “I have no companion but Love.” Here we stop talking about religion, and enter religious experience.  The joy you keep repeating becomes you.

The type of meditation that Easwaran taught is called “Passage Meditation.”  When I discovered this it felt like a method I had employed in some ways my whole life.  Meaningful words from mystics and scriptures had been meditated on with the thought that they would go deep into our consciousness.  The living prayer is that these words become who you are.  If we mediate on words that are a path of love, then we can transform that perversion of religion some of us learned as children.  For every faith tradition has this path of love and devotion, but we must see it firsthand, deliver it to ourselves in repetition, and then embody it in our souls and our lives.

So if I say, love is the spirit of this church, or love is my only companion, then perhaps I will be a different kind of person than the one who only sees what’s wrong with things, or avoids deeper relationships, or fears death.  In the reading you heard about that large elephant trunk that we wave around, keeping us from focusing on what we need to do to free ourselves from anger and fear.  “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.”  How many times have I said that as two people pledge their love?  Could it be a mantra for each of them, for me, for you?  Could we say it as the origin of a transformation of our life?  The mantra of our most inspirational words can change any of us.  It is not magic, but does hold the power to calm us and heal us of the stress that buries the mind.  And then it takes us to a place, where only love is our companion.

 

Meditation by Sue Twombly

Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better

Less is more

Only begin

Moderation in all things, including moderation

This too shall pass

Eyes on the prize

Perfect is the enemy of good

To thine own self be true

C’est la vie

C’est la guerre

C’est l’amour

It is what it is

One step at a time

Believe in magic

Fear is an illusion

Where you are right now is exactly where you need to be

I am

Love

Love is the spirit of this church

Love

 

Om

 

Closing Words – from Kabir

The flute of interior time is played whether we hear it or not.

What we mean by “love” is its sound coming in.

When love hits the farthest edge of excess, it reaches a wisdom.

And the fragrance of that knowledge!

 

It penetrates our thick bodies,

It goes through walls –

Its network of notes has a structure as if a million suns were arranged inside.

This tune has truth in it.

Where else have you heard a sound like this?

 

“A Pair of Lenses” by Andrea Greenwood – November 10, 2013

A Pair of Lenses

November 10, 2013

The First Parish of Watertown

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood

 

Opening Words  from Deuteronomy 34

And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to the top of Mount Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. He could see all the land of Gilead, and Judah, and others, all the way to the sea.

He could see the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees,

And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Now you have seen it with your own eyes, but you will not get there yourself.  Only those who come after you will go over.

And the children of Israel wept for Moses.

Then Joshua, the son of Nun, was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him, and taught him: and through listening to Joshua, the children of Israel could still know Moses, and all the hopes for the future.

 

 

Sermon

Last August I was sitting in church with my cousin, and afterwards Susan said, “I don’t go to church for the sermons, I go so I can sing.  I can read great stuff pretty much anywhere, but I don’t get a chance to sing.  So a decent sermon is like gravy.  It’s an extra, but it isn’t what makes the morning.”  It was my husband who gave the sermon that day, so it was good of Susan to find it decent, and gravy-like, but I have been thinking about her comment ever since.

I know exactly what she means.  The music is what carries me through a week, and also what connects me to the past.   Certain songs can bring me back to my childhood church, or to a certain era.  Dion’s “Abraham, Martin, and John” can make me a six year old, listening to the choir, watching the notes shimmer into that wavery greenish leaded glass that made it look like even the windows were crying.  Nothing I’ve read about Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. comes close to affecting me the way that song does.  I also have an emotionally charged response to the Judy Collins song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”  One September Sunday, the minister played a tape recording – something I have often heard criticized as lacking authenticity  — and this music unexpectedly grabbed me and captured everything I felt – even things I hadn’t been aware of until the song played. Music gets inside of us.  And it is repeatable.  I hum hymns all the time when I am swimming, or chopping vegetables.  Even though there have been sermons that kept me riveted, or comforted me, I can’t say as I have ever trudged along repeating lines from one.

 

So while I tentatively agreed with my cousin,  — yes, I can read great stuff anywhere, and yes, the music is really important, I was thinking,  It’s not just sermons and music, is it?  And it’s definitely not just a choice between them.  Church has to do with longing, and belonging; with taking out time; with tradition, and change, and being moved, or misunderstood.  I remember Salman Rushdie talking about having a God-shaped hole in his heart after his book The Satanic Verses came out, and some Muslim leaders called him an infidel and a traitor to his faith. I also think of a woman I met while guest preaching at First Church in Chestnut Hill.  They use a prayer book there, and – except for the sermon – the entire service is prescribed.  She was showing me what to read when, and pointed out the pastoral prayer, in which we ask for help for those in need, and those suffering.  She said, “See this comma?  I want you to really pause there, so we can think of everyone in pain before you start again.”

 

I found myself smitten by the idea of everything hanging on that comma.  In many ways, I had felt I didn’t understand this congregation and its prayer book, which was last changed in 1923. They listen to the same prayers from week to week, the music is generally Psalms, and the readings are from the lectionary.  That means the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible are each divided into 104 sections, and every week you read one from each source, and after two years you are back at the beginning.  The sermon is based on those Bible readings.  It is all a very external structure, reliable and unrelated to what the minister feels like talking about, or what is happening in the world – although of course these things find their way in.  But they are secondary.  The architecture of the service, and most of the content, has no relationship to any personal choice.  But Sally showed me how that structure worked for her, and presumably others in the congregation. That pause in the prayer was full, and personal; even though we couldn’t see or hear it, everyone was conscious of loss and pain and vulnerabilities, and looking for strength to make it all be otherwise, or to get through it, or accept what had to be.  Isn’t that exactly what the whole church-going business is all about – making a pause in the middle of our lives; letting ourselves feel everything that we feel, being renewed again?

 

A while back I was reading about a woman who had always felt drawn to the cloistered life, even though she was not Catholic.  Nuns seemed beyond human to her; compressed by outside forces until they were perfect; hard and clear, like diamonds.  Their isolation from the world was by choice – partly their own, but mostly because the universe chose them. She had a sense that the truly religious women had escaped from this world.  The regular old struggles that challenge us were not part of these chosen lives.  Finally, in her mid 30s, Alexa Mars decided to investigate, and went to live in a convent – not a cloister, but an active convent, with nuns who worked in the world.  Needless to say, her picture of the religious life changed dramatically.

 

It turns out that in many ways, the writer had everything backwards.  For the nuns she met, joining the convent back in the 1950s meant a way in to the world, not an escape from it.  They were allowed to attend college, to become teachers and professionals.  They could have real roles, and choices that women who married were not allowed, and they weren’t judged negatively for it. The convent represented an opportunity for a bigger life.  Even though Alexa appreciated this, she remained fascinated with the opposite, believing spirituality comes from a narrower, more constricted life.  She had expected to see flocks of sisters in flowing robes.  Individuality startles her, and the ugly, practical house doesn’t seem like the place where special people should live.  Shouldn’t they wander serenely in stone corridors; perch on sills of tall, Gothic windows with opaque glass?  Finally the prioress arranges a visit to a place that matched Alexa’s imagined monastery – a green expanse on the far side of a little bridge, a building replete with arches, and high walls, behind which lie a hidden engine of habit-wearing nuns who churned out prayer without ceasing.  The visitor’s room is divided by metal grilles – people of the world on one side, brides of Christ on the other – and there Alexa meets the religious ideal that has haunted her.  And suddenly, she is possessed by a question she hadn’t thought of before.  She knows they pray all day, but wants to know for WHO?  If you are isolated in here, physically cut off from the world, who do you pray for?  The answer, she is told, is everyone.  We pray for everyone.

 

I find myself back inside that comma; the space for specifics.  “Everyone” might as well be any one, and without the personal connection, we lose the bridge between interior and exterior worlds; between this physical place – the church —  and a kind of timeless concept of religion.   Something in this story of Alexa Mars’ speaks of this – She seems to be trying to identify the spiritual life as a visible thing. She longs for the beauty of the cloister, the simple ability to recognize faith by appearance; as if those who dress the part have somehow escaped from all the contaminants of the world.  But they haven’t, really.  They are aware of all the problems – the terrorist bombings, the wars, global warming.  Suddenly, being conscious of all that without actually being engaged in the muck of the world seems less beautiful.  The nuns appear locked in, shuttered away, and people who keep on living in the midst of  fear and imperfection have a new nobility.  Who can you really pray for if you don’t know anyone; if you live alone in a cell in an isolated monastery, mostly maintaining silence, and allowed only the rare visitor, half-seen see through a metal grill designed to keep purity in and danger out?

 

A few weeks ago, Mark and I went to go hear Jill LePore speak about Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane, and LePore told us that at one point Ben sent his sister a box of glass lenses along with instructions how to make herself a pair of spectacles.  He wanted her to make sure to try a variety of lenses for each eye separately, because, as he said, “Very few people have eyes that are fellows.”  It isn’t just that you and I see differently; even our own right and left eyes don’t see the same way.  LePore actually had us physically remove our glasses, and I was probably not the only one who was kind of afraid to take mine off.  I can’t see anything.  I feel completely cut off from the world without my glasses, but I also feel extremely vulnerable.  LePore went on to talk about how incredibly rare it was for women to have glasses in the 18th century; that for the most part no one knew or cared whether women could see at a distance, or up close, and their lives did not involve this kind of work.  Her talk was fascinating, but what really stuck with me was my own experience of the room with and without glasses, of being in the exact same room with the exact same people, but seeing and feeling everything in completely different ways because of the lens I was looking through.

 

And I thought, THAT’S what church does:  It changes what and how I see.  You may or may not know that the powers that be require a person who wants to be a minister to undergo all sorts of testing. I have never forgotten the way the psychologist who completed my final assessment pronounced, “You are an introvert who has learned how to be an extrovert.”  She seemed half proud of herself for catching me out, and half-proud of me for pulling it off.  I don’t think she was inaccurate, but I also  think she missed the big picture — what it was that changed me; that allowed me to be the extremely nearsighted introvert that I am and still be deeply, personally connected to others.  That is, she didn’t see the role of church, or faith. Religious community makes us into bigger people.  More of the world converges before our eyes.

Jane and Benjamin Franklin shared an enormous amount – sense of humor, values, even DNA – but their lives could not really have been more different.  He was rich, she was destitute.  He was famous; she was obscure.  The Revolutionary War made her homeless.  He went to Paris, and talked up his humble beginnings, to trick the aristocrats into thinking he was stupid.  She described her life as a litany of grief, and then chastised herself for questioning God’s will.

And yet they could and did see through each other’s eyes. After Ben Franklin sent his sister glasses, he sent books.  Among them were sermons from a Unitarian minister in London.  Jane read them, and wrote afterwards, “Dr Price says that thousands like Isaac Newton have been lost to the world; have lived and died in ignorance and want, merely because they were placed in unfavorable circumstances.”  This idea changed the universe for her.  She stopped seeing pain as her lot in life, handed to her by a God who demanded that she accept it.  Instead she defined the issue as social and economic inequality, an unfair situation that could and should be changed.  Faith, which had once meant resignation, became a force that strengthened and encouraged.

 

Today we were formally introduced to some of our young people, and we all—especially the adults who took the time to meet with Marina and David; with Ruben, Rowan and Chloe, — suddenly have more lenses through which to look at the world, at ourselves, at our beliefs and practices.  How do we sustain the things that matter to these kids; how do we nurture them, and help them grow strong?  What can we provide that will help them cope with pain and sorrow, and will make them stand for justice, even when it involves sacrifice? Also, what do they see that we missed, or ignored?  What do they point to that makes us stop and think and do things differently?  We become conscious of our connections, and now their loves, their worries and fears; their hopes and dreams for this world become partly ours, too.

The original Mentor was a character in the Odyssey, called in to the story by his old army buddy, Odysseus, soon after that famous hero and his wife have a son.  Telemachus is barely a toddler when his father sails off for Troy, asking Mentor to keep watch.  But Odysseus never comes back!  A dozen years pass, and his wife, Penelope, is locked in her room weaving and then ripping out her work, doing all that she can to avoid the disgusting men crawling all over the house, competing to replace her missing husband. Telemachus is desperate to find his father and get him to come home and take care of the mess.  And Mentor helps him do that.  He doesn’t say, grow up and handle this.  He doesn’t say, take care of your mother, and he doesn’t take care of the situation himself.  He doesn’t say, this must be your destiny.  He doesn’t do what Odysseus asked him to do, either.  Instead, Mentor helps the boy do what he wants to do, which is sail to the Peloponnesian Islands and look for his father.  They arrive at sunrise and see a huge bonfire on the shore, and five hundred men gathered around it, knawing on the charred bones of black bulls and invoking the name of Neptune.  Telemachus anchors the ship, and heads ashore, hoping to find news of his father, but he is nervous and worried about what to say, how to address the king of this land, who is obviously in the middle of a religious festival.  Mentor calmly says to the boy, “Some things will be suggested to you by your own instinct, and heaven will prompt you further; for I am assured that the gods have been with you from the time of your birth until now.”

The gods have been with you from the time of your birth until now.  I doubt it felt that way to the boy.  He had been living in chaos – absent father, mother taken to her bed, greedy people swooping in.  Yet in Telemachus’ case, this is literally true.  Throughout the Odyssey, half the time Mentor is himself, and half the time he is actually a front for the goddess Athena, who shape shifts and inhabits Mentor’s body to disguise her presence, the way Greek gods and goddesses like to do. And that is what Mentors have come to be, little packages of divinity that come and sit by our sides without anyone knowing their identity as immortals.  The most important thing about being an immortal is time.  There is always a future when you are going to live forever, and you are always invested in that future.  And so Mentors act as reminders that what tomorrow looks like depends on the choices we mortals make today.  The decisions are always our own to make, but they feel different when the people beside us have the long view; when we are attached to eternity.

The timelessness of faith is not about permanence, or peace; it is about containing us all, as we were and as we yet shall be, engaged in a voyage out into the pitfalls and pleasures of the world.  As Mentor whispered,  Trust your instincts.  The heavens will prompt you.  We are all with you.

 

Closing Words  Forgotten Language by Shel Silverstein

Once I spoke the language of the flowers,
Once I understood each word the caterpillar said,
Once I smiled in secret at the gossip of the starlings,
And shared a conversation with the housefly
in my bed.
Once I heard and answered all the questions
of the crickets,
And joined the crying of each falling dying
flake of snow,
Once I spoke the language of the flowers. . . .
How did it go?
How did it go?

 

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