“Getting Away From Good Intentions” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – December 28, 2014
Call to Worship: adapted from Mark Belletini
May the year come to shelter our spirits, and chase away at least a bit of our fear.
May the year come to serve up sufficient balance beams when the tightropes we walk are stretched to their tightest.
May the year come to surprise us all with unexpected pleasures, and only healthy relinquishments.
May the year come to provide us all with enough strength to face sorrow and limit, and enough joy to lengthen our lives.
May the year come to help us unlearn any mean things in us,
and learn ever fresh ways to be of service and witness.
May the year to come provide us some present measure of the peace that we dream for all the hurting world.
As we sail into the new year, on the mast of this minute, and on the ship of this hour, Let us find clear vision, and deepest mercy in the sacred rhythms of the year.
New Year’s resolutions are often made up of our good intentions to “be better.” Every January we tell ourselves this is the year I am going to lose weight, or exercise regularly, or work less and see my friends more often. We each have these mental lists that become goals for the year. What is going to make me a healthier, better, or nicer person this time around? One good intention I have not abandoned, but never quite fulfilled is exercising more. For the last year or more I have been going to the Y at least once a week. Recently I have tried to ramp that up to twice a week with mixed results. It is a work in progress. My exercise regime consists of stationary biking, weightlifting, some times treadmill and occasionally rowing. The biking is my favorite, as my particular machine is a high tech bike from which I can choose a variety of virtual courses from easy to moderate to difficult, which stretch from Oceanside highways to mountain passes to forest pathways, up and down hills, around corners, and even via detours where the road is washed out. The virtual route unfolds before my eyes on a screen as I huff and puff through different gears from 1-30, over ascents that measure as much as 30% inclines to descending valleys of equal measure downward. I can watch average speed and number of calories burned. There are even encouragements in signs along the way, or at the bottom of the screen – “you are half way home, or the wisdom of such movie sages as Yoda – Do or do not. There is no try. As silly as that advice may seem, especially since it comes from a three foot tall green guru who trains Jedi knights, I am going to use it as a launching pad for my new year’s service.
Do or do not. There is no try. It is appropriate because so much of new year’s resolution are idle predictions about what we are going to try to do to make ourselves better. This is the year, we say, for exercise, because . . . I have not lost the weight . . . I am not getting any younger. But so often it is merely idle chatter. It is what we say we want to do, or are going to do, but somehow it never materializes. As much as we would like to be thinner, or stronger, we simply are not making the effort to make it happen. We all know “the road to hell is paved with . . . . good intentions“ It is hell because we never end up fulfilling what we say we intend to do, and thus we feel like failures. How might we look ahead differently so it isn’t just the idle words of good intentions? How can we actually clean the basement rather than saying we are going to do it for the fifth year in a row. Hardly anyone makes good on their new year’s resolutions. It is something like 90% that fall by the wayside. What if there were no try, only do?
I often see that our resolutions are acted upon initially, but then we can’t keep on doing them, and they peter out for many of us. While there are those who say they are going to do something, and then never do, I think the honest, dutiful types that UUs are, usually means we at least begin to fulfill the resolution in earnest. I have a number of examples of this in my own life. We all know that drinking more water is essential for good health – feeling full you won’t eat so much, it helps your skin, you maintain a good balance of fluids –digestion, circulation, etc. How I envy those people who walk around with water bottles everywhere. How to accomplish this? It is kind of like daily flossing. It is bad habits that we acquired early in life that we somehow have never managed to change. When I was a kid no one in my house had ever heard of flossing. We were saints if we brushed once a day. And drinking water? My father was the dehydration specialist –he drank copious cups of coffee and then sometime after five o’clock switched to copious glasses of alcohol. Those were his liquids, period. Without models for these behaviors, we have to develop different habits as we age and mature. Now Andrea packs a bottle of water in my lunch, and I have a glass with dinner. Two drinks of water a day doesn’t sound like much, but it sure beats more coffee or wine. Some day I might even get to three glasses of water. The more exercise, the more water I will drink. The fuller I will feel, the more calories I will burn. We may have a weight loss resolution brewing here. The slow erosion of realized resolutions occurs because we don’t or won’t maintain these new activities. We go in with the best of intentions, and burning desires, but we easily fall back into our old ways. We say, I have work to do, so I can’t go to the Y today. We find an excuse for dropping the new resolution. It is not merely that it cuts into our work day. It may also be I can’t make it over there so early in the day, as there is too much traffic, no place to park, or rush hour makes me insane. We conclude it is not worth the hassle, and ease back into our old habits, of work and work some more.
What happens after a month of doing the resolution? Why do we break down? If you are like me, those excuses show I am weak willed. Or perhaps I am unwilling to give up my simple pleasures. Take crackers. I wish you would. I love crackers, and the cheese they are wedded to is like ambrosia to me. But crackers do me in. How can I eat three meals a day, and then come home from a scintillating First Parish committee meeting, and not have crackers to relax? I unwind with crackers and cheese as a nighttime snack. I can’t just go to bed. I have to ruminate on the future of our community. But I need the will to embark on a new lifestyle. My new year’s resolution is to give up these fatty square salt machines. But then I go to the store, and I see the low fat variety. My salvation. I don’t have to give up crackers, I say. I can switch to one that is good for me, right? It is whole wheat fat and salt. So it is a doomed resolution. Soon I am buying boxes of low fat crackers, and then I am eating the whole box, and the next thing you know, I am buying my old favorites with extra salt and fat.
There are many foods that we classify as healthy or healthier because they have the low fat label, or perhaps they were once healthy, but are now loaded with sugar. Yogurt was once a plain white substance that contained no additives. Now it worse than ice cream. Sure I can pretend it is healthy, but once I have that coconut flavor with the chocolate bits mixed in, I may as well be eating ice cream.
What do New Year’s resolutions mean to us? We need to be reasonable and fair with ourselves. I could say I am going to exercise every day, but that is ludicrous. For me, one or two days is reasonable, and I am determined to do the two, but five is not something I’ll ever do. We tend to run to extremes of all or nothing, which is why Aristotle’s maxim of moderation in all things is a more accurate reflection of what we really can do. In I Corinthians 9, Paul writes about the athlete saying, “And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.” (9:25). As the reading suggests, this year she is not making resolutions or asking for some outside force to make everything better. Like me, Tarbox is a true Calvinist Unitarian who is always taking self-inventories. This year, she says, she will do more to contribute to solutions. She will not try and fail. She will do. Sometimes we become enslaved by these plans for ourselves that are never going to work out – too much exercise, too much dieting, too much cleaning. A more helpful approach would be for us to do what we can and will do. No more resolutions, but rather a dedicated determination to do what will be helpful and healthy, and a commitment to actually doing it. That is a new year we can live by.
You have all been given a piece of paper. I invite you to write down the resolution that you make frequently, but never seem to act upon. Then you are invited to burn that resolution in our New Year’s fire, because it will no longer merely be a good intention, because you are determined that this year you will act upon it. It is something you will do. You are invited to say this publicly, or it may place it on the fire in silence.
Closing Words – “Blessings at Year’s End” by Howard Thurman
I remember with gratitude the fruits of the labors of others, which I have shared as a part of the normal experience of daily living.
I remember the beautiful things that I have seen, heard, and felt – some as a result of seeking on my part, and many that came unheralded into my path, warming my heart and rejoicing my spirit.
I remember the new people I have met, from whom I have caught glimpses of the meaning of my own life and true character of human dignity.
I remember the dreams that haunted me during the year, keeping me mindful of goals and hopes which I did not realize but from which I drew inspiration to sustain my life and keep steady my purposes.
I remember the awareness of the spirit of God that sought me out in my aloneness and gave to me a sense of assurance that undercut my despair and confirmed my life with new courage and abiding hope.
Christmas Eve 2014
Call to Worship – from Mary Wellemeyer (adapted)
Like those shepherds who were on the hillsides
with their flocks,
like those wise ones in their observatories
with their telescopes and astronomical charts,
like the innkeepers who sit behind their desks waiting for dawn,
we find our daily work interrupted by these holidays.
Like them, we can’t keep on working,
we have to listen to singing angels,
we have to deal with the call of that special star,
we have to decide if we have room for strange visitors.
The little town of Bethlehem is thronged
with people who have come to be taxed,
Tourists crowding streets and shops,
and we have to find our way to an unknown place,
where we will open the doors of our lives for a wonderful new beginning.
What precious new birth are you seeking this night?
For what do you push through crowds?
What have the angels told you?
What is the call of the star in your life?
Homily – NO VACANCY by Mark W. Harris
When you are traveling on vacation or even going back to a far away, yet familiar place in order to be taxed, like Joseph and Mary, and have not made plans in advance, what can be more frustrating than to find there is no room at the inn. We have all gone searching for shelter on a cold, dark night, and found only neon red signs that say, no vacancy. This search can seem endless. Tempers become short. When will it end, and will we find something, anything? It was years ago when my parents and I decided not to stay in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was over crowded and too sleazy, my mother said, and besides all of the nice hotels were full. Then we took off in my little orange Subaru over the mountain pass to find a hotel that had some room for three weary travelers. On the map it looked like a straight and flat highway, the most direct route to Pocatello, Idaho, but it turned out to be steep and narrow, cold and forbidding; in another time, filled with crevices and boulders for bandits and robbers to hide. The little car chugged up the mountain like the little engine that could; I think I can. And we did, but while the ride up was a slow gasp for power, the ride down was like a roller coaster, 10,000 feet up and descending a mile a minute or more. Soon a giant tractor trailer went roaring by, making wind that shook my car like a butterfly in a hurricane. Then at the bottom of the mountain, we saw the real dangers of late night rides into darkness. A shepherd had tried to cross the road with his flock, from one pasture to another. The flock and the truck had collided with terrible results. A few minutes before it would have been my little car. and us that met an untimely fate with all those wooly beasts, whose ancestors ranged on Judean hills while shepherds watched with care. Slowly we made our way through what might have been our disaster, and soon were safely in the nest of a warm evening’s lodging.
What can happen to you on a night when you are confronted with the no vacancy sign? The message is you cannot stay here, or you are not wanted. In first century Judea the prospective parents had to go ask the innkeeper, can we spend the night?
Surely the city was crowded with people who had returned to pay their taxes, or even tourists looking for a night on the town. Perhaps the inn was full of people, or the innkeeper did not want these shabby undesirables staying in the main house. They could spend the night with animals because they smelled like them. He may have seen them as country bumpkins from Nazareth, and not worthy to rub elbows with wealthy merchants. Wasn’t this young girl pregnant, and traveling with a man who was not her husband?
When do we put out the no vacancy sign? When do we only make room for others who look like us or who fit with our idea of what is right? We have all endured painful reminders this year of a world where people continue to put up symbolic no vacancy signs to Black Americans, suspected time and again of some crime or misdemeanor as the powers of the culture tell them you are nobody because we assume you must be poor, or a convict.
Jackie Robinson’s story of breaking the color line in major league baseball began with several no vacancy stories before he took the field for his first day of spring training in Sanford, Florida in 1946. On the trip from Los Angeles, Jackie and his wife Rachel were denied entry to segregated restaurants and hotels. When practice was over, the white players went back to their whites only lakefront hotel while Robinson went to a private home in the black section of town. That Sunday, when church was over, blacks by the hundreds walked to the ballpark, hoping to see their dreams fulfilled. Yet only one Florida city allowed Robinson to play – some padlocked the stadium, another said its lights weren’t working, even though it was an afternoon game, and in Sanford, Robinson was escorted off the field by the chief of police. More than six decades later a teenager named Trayvon Martin lived in Sanford, and one day, unarmed, lost his life there, too.
Ed Charles, who became a third baseman for the New York Mets, was a 12-year-old living in Daytona Beach during the 1946 spring training. When Robinson’s team left town on a train north to begin their regular season, Charles and several black children ran after the train until it disappeared from sight. “And when we finally couldn’t hear it any longer,” he said, “we ran some more and finally stopped and put our ears to the tracks so we could feel the vibrations of the train carrying Jackie Robinson. We wanted to be a part of him as long as we could.”
From the very beginning Mary might have been ridiculed or abused by everyone in the town of Nazareth because she was an unwed mother. And she could have accepted that sign that said she was worthless, but she refused to do so. Instead she believed an angel, a special heavenly voice that told her, your son is a very special child of God. What signs do we accept as truthful? We must determine which signs to follow.
Are any of us made to feel that our mental illness, or learning disability, or job, or education, or appearance somehow makes us less worthy? What if you felt the vibration in your blood and bones that you are worthy, even if you didn’t have the right papers – birth certificate, college degree, or green card.
Last year when a young homeless family from Arizona came to the church seeking shelter, I found none of the shelters would take them because they did not have paper work that registered them with the state, and were not welcome because they were from out of state. Go back home they were told, or go to a hospital. How do the homeless go home, even in the midst of howling snow storms, on the road, traveling with a baby? Who would tell this poor young family your child is a child of God? Could it be me?
Who is turned away when we hang a no vacancy sign in our school, our town, our church or our country? A gift we can offer this season is a world of vacancy signs open for all. The story tells us that God dwells with the one who is turned away from the inn.
Let us be more afraid of missing a chance to meet that child of God than we are of open doors.
Finding Light in the Darkness by Lauren Strauss
December 21, 2014
Ruby came into the world on Wednesday.
Before she arrived, her parents knew that at 25 weeks and weighing only 350 grams, Wednesday would be her first and last day on earth.
Her aunt Jennifer, who lives in Virginia, posted in my online knitting group to tell us about Ruby, and to ask a favor of the three members who live in Wisconsin.
“Kristin, Marie, or Judith,” she wrote, “could I ask one of you a HUGE favor? My niece will be born on Wednesday and will not live for more than a few hours. I desperately want to make her a hat, but it would cost $100 to get it there on time. Is there any chance one of you could knit a hat for her and get it to my mom in Brookfield?”
Huge favor or not… Kristin, who lives closest to Brookfield, began knitting immediately, and Judith began a second hat just in case Kristin’s fell through.
I yearn for light at this time of year. It is easy to understand why our forebears lit bonfires and lanterns and candles, and built great devices for measuring the shortest and longest days. What if the light never comes back? What if winter stretches on, never ending, cold and dark and dreary? I turn on lights in these days, and I light candles, and I play holiday music and light a fire in my fireplace because otherwise the sun and I may never rise again.
But in the last few years, even as I acknowledge my craving for light, I note that I am willing to embrace darkness. The winter solstice is a time of introspection—we turn inward toward the shadowy places of our souls and, if we’re ready, we embrace what we find there. Not long ago I feared what I would find. I feared that those shadows would press me down, and even when the days grew longer, I would not be able to ascend.
But what I find when I look deep within, now—is light. Sometimes it’s a tiny, stubborn light barely piercing the darkness—but it is eternal and indomitable. If I had given in to my fear of the darkness within me, this light would have remained hidden. It takes courage to go within and find it, but more and more frequently I’m able to make that journey inward and embrace what I find there—dark and light, both parts of my spirit I cannot, and would not, give up.
The Light in us is Love. When Kristin drove from Milwaukee to Brookfield on Tuesday to bring a tiny hat and scones and a card for the family of a friend she has never met in person— her love was a tenacious light blazing in the darkness. Her light shone for Jennifer, and for Ruby, and for Ruby’s grieving parents. Each of us has that radiance shining within us; if we can be brave enough, we discover our light is strong enough to carry us through all kinds of adversity. When our inner lights seem dim, as they must to Ruby’s mom and dad right now, the love of those around us can be a beacon of hope.
Turn inward, in winter when the earth’s path takes us far from the sun and shortens our days. Turn inward and embrace your darkness, and discover your light. Let your light shine upon the world, like a prophetic star, or one day’s oil burning for eight nights, or a bonfire lit on the longest night. Blessed Be.
Call To Worship—
Amy Bowden Freedman
Once more, the earth has turned toward the light of the sun.
As we are bathed in the light of a new day,
So may we greet the dawning of fresh possibility.
Once more, we awaken from our slumber.
As our bodies rise
To meet the challenges and pleasures of living,
So may our hearts and minds open with promise.
Once more, we gather for worship.
As we join our voices in word and song,
So may this assembly bring forth wholeness.
Come, let us worship together.
Reading—Rachel Jones – “For So the Children Come”—Sophia Lyon Fahs
For so the children come
And so they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come—
Born of the seed of man and woman.
No angels herald their beginnings
No prophets predict their future courses
No wise men see a star to show
where to find the babe that will save humankind
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.
Fathers and mothers—sitting beside their children’s cribs—
feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning.
They ask, “Where and how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?”
Each night a child is born is a holy night—
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for worshipping.
Lauren: From the beginning of time, human beings have celebrated the Winter Solstice as a promise that sun and warmth will return to the world. All over the world, in every religious tradition, we have lit festive lights to ward off the dark and usher in the light. We lit our Chalice, symbol of our Unitarian Universalist tradition, and throughout our service we will light other lights to honor many of the holidays celebrated at this time of our year.
Tracy: I invite ____________ to place a Yule log on our Solstice hearth.
Each year, at this time of shorter days, in many lands of the Northern hemisphere, people gather on the longest and darkest night to light special fires of remembrance. The ancients lit their fires, and many people before us have burned Yule logs to chase away the darkness and mark the birth of the sun.
Lauren: Next, ______________ will light the Christmas tree.
The tradition of bringing a fir tree into the home or town square goes back to the 1600s, though covering it with lights is a newer tradition. May our tree’s colorful lights bring joy to all, as we move past the shortest day and the sun begins to return.
Candle Lighting: Advent & Hanukkah—
Tracy: Next, ________________ will light the Advent wreath.
(Light 1st Candle): Spirit of the east, spirit of air, spirit of hope: Be with us as the sun rises, in times of beginning, times of planting. Inspire us with the fresh breath of courage as we go forth into new adventures.
(Light 2nd Candle): Spirit of the south, spirit of fire, spirit of peace: Warm us with strength and energy for the work that awaits us.
(Light 3rd Candle—PINK one): Spirit of the West, spirit of Water, spirit of Love: be with us when the sun sets that we may enjoy a rich harvest.
(Light 4th Candle): Spirit of the north, spirit of earth, spirit of joy: Be with us in darkness. Fill us with hope, peace, and love, that we may come to realize the joy of this season, not only at Christmas, but always.
Lauren: _________________ will recite the Hanukkah blessing and light the Menorah.
The blessing, translated into English, means:
Blessed are You, oh Mystery of Life, Ruler of the Universe, Who has blessed us, and invites us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah.
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotov v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.
Homily—Finding Light in the Darkness—Lauren
Candles: Diwali & Kwanzaa—
Lauren: Next, we invite ______________ to light an oil lamp in honor of Diwali.
As the primary festival celebrated by Hindus all over the world, Diwali honors the timeless tale of good’s triumph over evil. Whether rejoicing in the return of Rama, the killing of Narakasura, or the banishment of Alaksmi, Hindus light oil lamps and ignite crackers (fireworks) to celebrate both the reminder that good will prevail and to welcome the blessings of the goddess of fortune for the coming year. During Diwali, celebrants wear new clothes and share sweets and snacks with family members and friends.
Tracy: _______________ will light the Kinara for Kwanzaa.
Each candle symbolizes one of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. During Kwanzaa, which begins on December 26, one candle is lit on each of seven nights.
(Black Candle): Umoja, or Unity
(Red Candles): Nia, which means “Purpose.”
Kuumba, which means “Creativity.”
Imani, which means “Faith.”
(Green Candles): Kujichagulia, which means “Self-Determination.”
Ujima, which means “Collective work and responsibility”
Ujamaa, which means “Cooperative economics.”
Meditation – Elizabeth M. Strong
Please join with me in the spirit of meditation and prayer.
We are in the midst of the season of celebration.
Of the birth of new hope,
Of the festival of lights,
Of the triumph of freedom.
The darkness of the year is lifting and the time of light grows longer. We have gathered with an anticipation of hope for peace on earth and in our homes.
We have gathered in this season of celebrations seeking comfort to soften the pain and the losses our lives have suffered in the fast retreating year.
We have gathered to worship joyfully within this season of celebrations with the tenderness and love of family and friends around us.
Let us be embraced by the strength and power of this sacred space that we each bring as we create this beloved community.
Let joy and sorrow join in the fullness of our living.
Let the power and strength we embody join us together as we move through the seasons of celebration into a new year with a new vision of hope for peace on earth.
The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper
And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
“Leaving Jesus Alone” by Mark W. Harris
December 14, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – “Now is the Moment of Magic” by Victoria Safford
Now is the moment of magic,
when the whole, round earth turns again toward the sun,
and here’s a blessing:
the days will be longer and brighter now,
even before the winter settles in to chill us.
Now is the moment of magic,
when people beaten down and broken,
with nothing left but misery and candles and their own clear voices,
kindle tiny lights and whisper secret music,
and here’s a blessing:
the dark universe is suddenly illuminated by the lights of the menorah,
suddenly ablaze with the lights of the kinara,
and the whole world is glad and loud with winter singing.
Now is the moment of magic,
when an eastern star beckons the ignorant toward an unknown goal,
and here’s a blessing:
they find nothing in the end but an ordinary baby,
born at midnight, born in poverty, and the baby’s cry, like bells ringing,
makes people wonder as they wander through their lives,
what human love might really look like,
Now is the moment of magic,
and here’s a blessing:
we already possess all the gifts we need;
we’ve already received our presents:
ears to hear music,
eyes to behold lights,
hands to build true peace on earth
and to hold each other tight in love.
“I Feel Sorry for Jesus” by Naomi Shihab Nye
People won’t leave Him alone.
I know He said, wherever two or more
are gathered in my name…
But I bet some days He regrets it.
Cozily they tell you what he wants
and doesn’t want
as if they just got an e-mail.
Remember “Telephone,” that pass-it-on game
where the message changed dramatically
by the time it rounded the circle?
People blame terrible pieties on Jesus.
They want to be his special pet.
Jesus deserves better.
I think He’s been exhausted
for a very long time.
He went into the desert, friends.
He didn’t go into the pomp.
He didn’t go into
the golden chandeliers
and say, the truth tastes better here.
See? I’m talking like I know.
It’s dangerous talking for Jesus.
You get carried away almost immediately.
I stood in the spot where He was born.
I closed my eyes where He died and didn’t die.
Every twist of the Via Dolorosa
was written on my skin.
And that makes me feel like being silent
for Him, you know? A secret pouch
of listening. You won’t hear me
mention this again.
Second Reading – from The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
I don’t like people. Oh . . . maybe that is an indiscreet thing to say considering the audience. Perhaps I should say I like individual people, but it is large groups that I don’t like. Oh, but you’re a large group. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all. But the problem is that you probably assume I like large groups of people simply because I am here talking to you in a very public way. You may have even seen me try to sing a capella, or wear a silly Baker’s hat at the Thanksgiving service, or even saw me play the role of a turnip a few years back. It seemed very loud and extroverted and public. You say, oh he must be an extrovert. But, I am not. A few years back I wrote a newsletter column about my attempt to attend a Christmas party at Andover Newton Theological School. I described all the ways I delayed my arrival at the party (going late, checking my mail box and so forth), and then once I arrived I looked in the door, but then found I knew no one by name, and no one was wearing name tags. Can you imagine going up to a complete stranger and introducing yourself? Nothing is more painful for me. That party went on without me. I left. It was one of the more liberating things I have ever done.
I become overwhelmed by large groups of people. If I walk into a Target store, especially this time of year, I want to scream. There are a million people there pushing and shoving; lining up and buying everything in sight. It is an intense experience. It is a lot of work for me.. Our culture is very extroverted at Christmas time. There is music playing everywhere and parties, and large groups of people. While some people draw energy from this cacophony of sounds and sights, I become drained. And that is true of others in this congregation, and this world. We are introverts. In fact, I believe Karen Allendoerfer spoke on this subject last summer. While you may believe I am extroverted because of my loud voice, and my job, you have to remember that a sermon is scripted. Large parties are not. I like visiting people in their homes or talking one on one, or small committee meetings. Some people actually like social hour. They draw energy from a party. I endure them. I have to work at working a room.
We live in a society where the assumption is made that being an extrovert is better. We are often convinced we want an type A personality for a leader, who is a cheerleader who rouses everyone to action, and those who lead quietly behind the scenes or in small groups, or God forbid, want to be left alone to concentrate on doing their work, are not as desirable. I saw this pattern with some people’s reaction to Tracy when they first met her. (Since Tracy is not here today, I can talk about her.) “She is kind of quiet,” they said. “We won’t notice her or be inspired by her.” There was an assumption that she would blend into the woodwork. Now you know her, and see that she is a fabulous organizer and leader, who listens well and gets things done, and preaches well to boot. Like most introverts, we are surrounded by extroverts who don’t understand anything, but the extrovert way. Their idea of down time is relaxing in a big party. My idea of down time is having everyone go away. But we feel we can’t even say we need alone time. What happens when your partner says, I need to be left alone for a while? That’s when all the projections start. We may think she or he is angry at me. What did I do? She does not want me anymore. She’s rejecting me, and telling me to go away. I must have done something wrong, and she refuses to talk about it. Sometimes we forget to listen to our friend or partner’s need to be alone. Perhaps he or she is an introvert, and needs to recharge.
I have come to believe that Jesus was an introvert. Yet if I truly listened to today’s poem, I wouldn’t make any projection about him. That’s the problem we all want to make him into exactly what we want. Even the Unitarians don’t want to mess around with any of that magical healer stuff. We are a little afraid of what goes beyond our rational minds. For instance, we read those Gospels and we pick up on the public part of his ministry. He liked to go to parties and turn water into wine. The next thing you know they called him a wine bibber. This develops like the telephone game, Nye describes. You’ve played that game before. One person hears a story, and passes it on to the next, and each person changes the story. Suddenly a small fender bender accident becomes a major crash. We all put our own spin on the telephone game. This happened to me with my use of the word “retirement” recently. I was at dinner the other night with someone, and they mentioned how they heard I was retiring this year. Because I had said the word in public settings and talked about some possible plans, they had gotten the idea that it was happening soon, like now! The lesson for me was that if I was going to say something, I should be very specific about details and timing because the telephone game will be played with any rumor, and who knows where the story will go, or what the details will be. Look for those retirement details in the January newsletter.
So we have made Jesus into exactly who we want him to be. There are those who want the political radical. You know he was the rabble rouser, and zealot who was furious at how his people had been oppressed by the imperialistic Romans and the Pharisees. He screams vindictive words and turns over the money changers tables. He is an advocate and liberator for the poor and oppressed. Or maybe it is Jesus the hippie with the long hair and beard, who wanders around, homeless, begging from his friends, with no visible means of income. He is a public story teller who is always inviting people to come along with him. He is a magical healer, bringing much attention to himself by raising the dead, healing the sick, rescuing the accused. Now we have those people who want to marry him off, make him a dad, seeming to want him to be a normal guy by their standards. Sometimes I think he must have said, “Leave me alone.”Even in this story of his birth that we like to retell this time of year, we have angels heralding the event, and lots of shouting of hosannas, and glory to God! Lots of extroverted noise.
We may not think of Jesus as a quiet, introverted guy. But how do you think he became such a deeply spiritual person? It is not merely being a charismatic leader who can talk up a storm and charm the ladies. There is the need for time to look deep within yourself. There is the willingness to be open to another reality. There is a calm perception that the world is not meant to be consumed or conquered, but rather it is meant to be perceived in such a way that a sacred reality comes through in every person, place, object and being. This makes me think that Jesus was balanced between introvert and extrovert, what psychologists call an ambivert, who know that it is best to draw on the qualities of both and sometimes be the life of the party and other times draw renewed energy from solitude. In Jesus’ story we know he suggests that rather than praying in public we are better served by going into our room and shutting the door. The temptations of the devil to absorb all the powers and principalities of earth are present, and Jesus goes off into the wilderness for 40 days in order to find the inner strength to do what he needs to do to further his calling to resist evil. Although it is not really a funny story, one has to marvel at Jesus reaction to the disciples when they get caught in a big storm out at sea, and they panic over impending disaster. Does Jesus stand up and man the tiller, or calm the sea with magical words? No, he takes a nap. When he was in Gethsemene near the end of his life, did he call for a strategy session with the disciples? No, he says, “stay here, I’m going on alone.” He had to withdraw to figure out what he wanted to do. As Nye says, “He went into the desert, friends.
He didn’t go into the pomp.” Even when he gets caught in situations where his enemies want to label him and get him to betray himself, he throws the question back on them, and says what do you say? We may think he wants attention, but often, he wants to divert it elsewhere. Each of us needs a rhythm of time alone and time with other people. We all need to rest and recharge. We sometimes say that Unitarian Universalism is a faith that is reflected in how we live our lives in the world, but we can only reach out in love to others, when we have taken time to find that well of love and strength in quietness that enables us to go into the world.
As many of you know the UUA recently sold their headquarters on Beacon Street in Boston, and moved to the South end where they bought a building on Farnsworth Street and redesigned it for modern office space. It is quite nice, and won some awards for green design. If you visit and get a tour of the building you will immediately notice one overriding floor plan that seems to reflect current thinking about how offices need to be designed to produce maximum efficiency and collaboration among employees. It is a radically open floor plan with no private offices or doors. This seems to reflect where experts believe the most creativity and intellectual achievement stems from. This perspective says that teamwork is ultimately important for institutional or corporate success. This means the group alone will achieve greatness and that no one person is as smart as all of us. I am suspicious of this having worked at the UUA many years ago, when I found that much of the time I could have spent doing my job of researching for congregations, I was instead occupied with staff meetings or socializing with other staff in so called collaborative meetings. While open space may allow more interactions, I found it also led to more distractions. It seems to me it is forcing an extroverted understanding on the workplace, where a more balanced approach might also give employees a chance to reflect quietly, get work done, and have an occasional private conversation. In fact, Susan Cain, in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says that collaboration can kill creativity, and that excessive stimulation impedes learning. Studies show that people learn better after a walk in the woods than after a stroll through a noisy city street. How can you be productive when you are constantly interrupted?
The problem is that we are all engrained with the idea that we must be performers. If we don’t sell ourselves, or market our wares we will be failures. While we all know there must be times that we have to prove ourselves, what’s wrong with looking for more balanced character traits. Andrea has sometimes told me that I probably interview poorly because I become anxious talking to a group of new people. An interview like that does not bring out some of the better qualities of an introverted person, because it is dependent on easy verbal acuity, and a facility with being able to think on your feet. An introvert may be better prepared to listen rather than speak, to reflect on what to do rather than speak or act precipitously. While they may look like they are not involved, or would rather be left alone, what they are really doing is going deep to reflect on the things, to prepare themselves for a future day when they are called upon to come up with a new way of being together in the world, when they listen to the other, and find a pathway to deeper truths.
Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The Invention of Wings, wrote a series of inspirational writings when she was young. In one called “Silence,” she recalls a childhood memory of being in bed when she was four, and hearing a persistent scratching on her window screen. While she could have been afraid because it was a loud and grating sound, and it was dark, she wasn’t. She kept coming up with increasingly magical explanations for what it was, as she lay there in the darkness. Finally she crept out of bed, and made her way to her parent’s bed. When she crept in, she shook her mother’s shoulder, and said, “Mama, there is an angel scratching against my window.” She waited a few moments. Her mother did not say, “Don’t be silly that violates any rational explanation of our world.” Nor did she say, that scratching on your window is the wind dragging a branch across it.. It’s nothing. Go back to bed.” Instead even though she was sleepy, she realized that the ability to listen to the world as a mythic and sacred place, to listen to the humdrum and familiar and hear the sacred possibility of music inside it, is a fragile thing, that is easily lost. So rather than denying, or destroying Kidd’s first attempt to listen to the holy possibilities of life, her mother blessed this possibility. “An angel?” She said. “Wonderful. Say hello for me.”
Here Kidd was rewarded as a four year old, not with the blighting of her spirit by a world that is too much with us, but with its own awakening in quiet reflection to spiritual possibility, and then with the nurture of a continuing awakening by someone who loved her. I am reminded of al those sounds I listened to as a child as I lay in bed – summer time cicadas rhythmically serenading me to sleep, as I heard deeper sweeps of rushing wind or dancing trees like streams of the soul, to Christmas time yearnings for a sound of a sleigh on the roof, and then to awaken to a dream of what looked like a shadow of a sliding form on a crystal bed of snow. This season gives us a few moments when we can dwell in magical explanations when we shrink back from an extroverted world where people spill vengeance, and fear and rage upon the world from too much time together, when we have not regained an inner solitude of peace and wonder. Think when a loved one says leave me alone, and we react with fear that they don’t want us around, when perhaps it is only a cry for renewal. May we listen to each other so that the noise of fear can collapse, so that we can dwell with the inner music that longs to regain its center so that our partnership is not a quarrel, but a relational opportunity to love again. Christmas time invites us to listen once again to those magical abilities we all possess to attune our lives to a deeper silence, to return to a time when we imagined mythic understandings of life, and in that listening we could shorten the distances between us, if only for a few moments. May the smell of those childhood breathing meadows that we heard outside our windows return once more, and remind us in this season of solstice that we are all children of earth, all inheritors of the gift of life.
And so may this season bring you some alone time, some time to rest in some needed moments of noiseless calm where you may find strength to restore your soul. Kidd’s novel The Invention of Wings begins with the slave girl Handful and her mother’s stories. She told Handful that her people used to have wings in the old country and they could soar like blackbirds. That magic was stolen when Handful’s grandmother was captured by a slave trader and sent to the Americas. But someday, she promised, they would get their wings back. This is a book about restoring freedom – free body for a slave, free mind for Sarah Grimke, free souls for all of us – freeing us to once again hear the music of divinity in uncommon places – when we only hear shouts of noise. What would give us wings again? Sarah gives Handful some freedom when she teaches her to read. That ends when she is caught drawing letters in the sand, and her master knows the truth. There is a story about Jesus drawing a line in the sand. He indicates he will not follow this law that threatens this woman accused of adultery. I will not be embarrassed he shows, by answering before a crowd. I will not say there is an “us” and a “them.” Who is sinless among us? Here I make my stand. He did it silently with his line in the sand. We must be intentional about where we draw our lines. When will we stop to balance the noise in our lives with a deeper music that gives us the strength to seek freedom. We will never understand that which we have not been intentional about making room for. This season invites us to make room for quiet gifts of the spirit.
Closing Words – “The Angels of Our Better Nature” by Vivian Pomeroy
The Christmas spirit is the song of what Lincoln called “the angels of our better nature.” It is music from the undaunted heart of the world. And somehow at Christmas time we all come home for a little while to what we most really are, which is what we shall be. And suddenly round the corner we come to the unspoiled surprise – to the loveliness and hope and innocent [bliss] which we so often feared we would never see again.
No Room at the Inn
Dec. 7, 2014
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words ― Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies
“It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said ‘do the best you can with these, they will have to do’. And mostly, against all odds, they do.”
Sharing – Dana Harris
I wanted to share an experience that humbled and has shaped me. Last winter, our church youth group went to Boston for a weekend to stay in Saint Paul’s church across from Boston Common. We were there to help the homeless get through the tough winter we were having. Before the weekend, we had collected backpacks and wheeled suitcases, coats, sweaters, boots and sleeping bags. All kinds of things to help keep people warm. We brought all this with us, and then late on Friday night we took a tour of Boston led by some homeless people that were part of the program. I saw people curled up in balls trying to stay warm, I saw one person who had already fainted from the cold and could have ended up dying. It was really depressing seeing the suffering they were experiencing. On Saturday, I remember being exhausted from sleeping in the uncomfortable pews, making hundreds of sandwiches, and carrying heavy stacks of clothing for a day. The next morning I cried when I saw the people receiving clothing, supplies, and food. No suffering I could be going through was as bad as theirs. Yet, I saw these people find a way to be genuinely happy and grateful. I was able to talk with them, serve them food, and give them clothing! I had never felt so upset and proud at the same time.
The affirmation I grew up with here, “minds that think, hearts that love, hands that help,” definitely applied that weekend. I was thinking about these people so much, I truly fell in love with the idea of helping those in need. It made me think about my life and how the three parts of our affirmation have been building blocks for me.
I would never say I am perfect; I do not think everything through and I make mistakes, like everyone does. But what matters is that we kept trying our hardest to be the best that we can be and respect one another in the process. This is what it means to have a mind that thinks. Learning is a process, and if we try we can learn more each day. The sad thing is not to learn, or to think that some people have nothing to teach us.
The second part of our affirmation is “hearts that love.” Whether I know them well or not, if someone is not doing well I always like to check in with them. That is how I was raised. I want everyone to be happy and respect each other. I am always willing to have hands that help for people in need. Some people may call that being an “errand boy” but I honestly just really enjoy being able to help.
If one can find a community of people that care, I think that is one of the keys to a truly happy and successful life, and I have that! Because of my family and my church I have the skill, the confidence, and the loving support to have a successful life and I know it is going to happen. Thank you for raising me to have good morals to live by.
Reading from “Meeting the Invisible Society” by Tessa Collins in the Watertown High School newspaper, Feb. 25, 2014
Imagine coming to America and being homeless. Imagine getting out of jail just to realize you have nowhere to go. Imagine losing your job and having no option but to sleep on the ground outside. Imagine not knowing whether you are eating tonight or not.
These situations are true for homeless people around the world. Homelessness is ubiquitous, yet invisible to society.
That’s what CityReach is trying to change.
They connect all kinds of people to work toward one common goal: eliminating the displaced population.
Most of the staff are currently homeless or have been homeless at some point. Some of them have been homeless for 20 years or more.
This January, I went to St. Paul’s Cathedral across from Boston Common for a youth retreat. Not knowing what to expect, I was nervous. There were four groups of high school aged volunteers, totaling about 90 youth, who worked distributing clothes and food and learned about the life of the homeless. I came with initial uneasiness, but left with a whole new outlook on society and on people who don’t have homes.
First, we heard their stories.
The CityReach staff told us their plights and how they’ve recovered from them. Everyone who spoke lost their job, fell victim to drugs and addiction, or simply didn’t want to live with their parents and moved out only to realize that they couldn’t build a life alone.
Later that night, we got a tour of Boston from their perspective. Split into groups, we dispersed around the city. My group walked to South Station, where the rush of travelers and trains veil the homeless seeking warmth there. The tour changed my view of the sparkling city of Boston because I saw a dimmer and harsher reality.
That night, we slept in St. Paul’s on pews. Not having our own beds and stable homes to return to, we felt a fraction of what the homeless feel everyday in their itinerant lives. It was hard to sleep, knowing how many people were still outside in the bitter cold.
But soon a 6 a.m. wake-up call signaled the long day ahead. After hours of preparation, the church opened its doors to the homeless who were looking for clothes and food.
Amid the craziness and crowds and the loud voices, I found connections with people. I found great comfort in knowing that everyone had a story and was willing to tell it.
One woman, Jane, arrived to the United States in 1984 to no house. She was born in London and met her husband online. They fell in love, and she immigrated here to marry him.
But this is not a calamitous story about a couple that tragically lost their house and their stable lives: Jane knew that her soon-to-be husband was homeless before she came to this country. She willingly left her comfortable life and family in England to be homeless with him.
Her story is unique, and she is unlike most of the people who came to CityReach. But they are all unlike each other. They are individuals with different stories.
It was rewarding to make a difference and help just by giving out a deli sandwich and a few snacks, or listening. Some people kept their heads down and simply nodded to me, while others bounced up to the table with bright smiles and arms full of new clothes, looking for conversation.
One man told me that the sandwich I gave him was the best he had ever tasted.
Another man called me over to where he was sitting to refill his coffee cup four times. He later thanked me and smiled.
One woman told me, “Chase after any dream you have, and don’t be complacent, like I was.” I was surprised to hear someone be so upfront and didactic.
Another woman had pink hair and offered to dye mine as well, since I liked hers so much. I considered it, but then pictured my parents yelling at me for letting a homeless woman dye my hair neon pink, and decided against it.
Anyone in the world can become homeless, but they’re still the same person they were when they had a place to live. We should not be afraid to reach out to each other, wherever we are living.
I am wondering how many of you have noticed the change in the Zen garden. A couple of weeks ago, courtesy of Clint Sours and a big shovel and a long couple of days, a woman took up permanent residence just to the east of the Japanese maple tree. Her name is Quan Yin, and some people think she is a goddess, but technically she is a boddhisatva – a person devoted to achieving wisdom for the benefit humanity. Quan Yin is the only female boddhisatva, but her identity as a woman isn’t fixed – in some countries, like Japan, she is a man; and many people believe that the Dalai Lama is the living incarnation of Quan Yin. She has a back story – actually, a number of them – but it seems like the bigger issue for us is, why is she here?
About two years ago, a group of kids in our church school decided that they would like to build a zen garden. No one completely remembers exactly how they came to this decision, but it arose from several directions at once – an interest in Buddhism, a desire to do something real and physical, a love of being outside, the fun of working as a whole group to achieve something lasting; something that would benefit everyone, even people we don’t know yet and maybe never will. Happily, Max Sours needed a big service project to meet the requirements of his Eagle Scout program, and that was just the impetus needed to make the project a reality. Also happily, I was teaching in the class when the kids decided on the project, but not when they built it! When the kids were planning their garden and what it needed, the only thing that had to be purchased – as opposed to built or planted – was a statue of the Buddha. I promised them I would buy the statue as long as it was a Quan Yin. I didn’t want the laughing Buddha that greets you in Chinese restaurants with dollar bills stuck to him, or the starving Buddha experiencing suffering, or one of those disembodied heads you see on bookshelves.
I first learned about Quan Yin as a precious piece of pottery in a book that I read in fourth grade. She was a statue that the father kept on his desk. There was no mother in this story, and it took place during World War II and the father was often away, advising politicians in Washington about the economy. Periodically, throughout the story, each child would occasionally sit at the father’s desk and look at the statue. It was not a big deal in the book; it was just something that happened now and then, but it seemed to me that the kids were lonely in a way that was never talked about; like there was an undercurrent to their lives that could only be hinted at. They had great adventures and everything was interesting, and they knew their father was safe, but the little private visits to the Quan Yin fascinated me. She did something for them, but it was left to the reader to notice that. The only thing that was ever said about the statue was that she was Quan Yin, that Father prized her, and she was from the Tang Dynasty. Later, in a sequel to the book, a treasure hunt clue that leads to the statue reads: I am old. I guard a secret or a prayer with equal silence; peace is the jewel I wear and compassion is the wand I hold. Knowing he was an economist and that the statue was so valuable, and knowing that this family was always struggling to make ends meet, it seemed odd that the statue was kept out in the open, on his work desk. She had no protection. And in fact, the statue does get broken, but no big fuss gets made about it. One of the kids goes looking for her on the desk, but she is missing, and finally located in the workshop. The author drew a wonderful picture of the statue standing serenely on a bench, presiding over an oil can and a broken coffeepot, with a wrench and some tacks strewn about. She is waiting to be glued back together.
Eventually I learned that the Tang dynasty was basically the Chinese equivalent of the Renaissance in Italy, a high period of art and literature and military achievement which happened during the 600s. Woodblock printing was invented, as was gunpowder. And it was also a time of incredible religious diversity. Confucianism was mixed with Zoroastrianism and Islam, and Buddhism became influential by taking on its own distinct Chinese flavor. This is when Zen Buddhism began to develop, and it was also during the Tang dynasty that Quan Yin took form. Her name translates literally as “the sound of lamentation,” but it isn’t because she is sad; it is because the name evolved from a Sanskrit term that meant “she who can hear the cries of the world.” She is, above all, able to listen compassionately. I like that in our Zen garden, she is almost under the Japanese maple, which has leaves that are cut so deeply that they rain down like tears. It is a position that evokes the traditional story of Guatama sitting under the fig tree, but it takes that story deeper, because hers is a story not about the search for enlightenment, but what happens after attaining it. Quan Yin appears in many different forms – standing, sitting, riding a dragon, or floating on the sea; with full hands, with children, with many arms or just the regular two. Ours sits like a lotus, the flower that is born of mud, to remind us that beauty can emerge in the midst of misery, and her hands are empty, because she has just released the Buddhist wheel, and set learning in motion. Oddly enough, it is not the statue the kids picked out or that we ordered! Yet she is exactly perfect for the spot, and for us, and I am grateful to the combination of hard work on the part of the youth, especially Max Sours, and fate, that brought us this peaceful and empowering spot. I like, too, that it has a public function; hints at an oasis available to all, despite the sea of cars. You don’t even need to come inside to receive something that helps. So often we think that who we are as a church is in this room, but as Tessa and Dana reminded us this morning, that is not true. There are teachers and children downstairs, and meetings and choir practice…. So much is put in motion, and we are not always aware. What happens in the minds and hearts of people who encounter this faith is not visible to us. Our kids may seem like they drift away, but maybe they are actually carrying us somewhere, making us bigger and more attached to the wide world. What Dana and Tessa shared today certainly shows we are in them, wherever they may go.
Quan Yin stands for compassion that dissolves boundaries. There is nothing magical about her; she is simply patient and strong, and the natural ally of those with the least social power. Traditionally, that means children and women, but of course it also means the poor and sick and all those whose natural suffering is compounded by an uncaring and unjust system. The stories about her are not only about providing comfort; she is seen as a fierce protector, too. She can rescue those who are imperiled, and, if there are demons, Quan Yin is capable of scaring them away. My favorite detail about Quan Yin is that she rejected the chance to leave this earth. Because of her enlightened state, she was offered a chance to move to the next life, but she refused, because it seemed wrong to go be blissful as long as there were still people she might help. She chose to stay in the dirt with suffering humanity rather than be deified. And so there is no ritual or dogma associated with Quan Yin – no prayers or actions or anything. But people who sit with her naturally become nicer, more compassionate, gentle and loving. She cultivates a sense of service. A previous minister of this congregation once wrote of the church here as an old gray ghost, rising on a knoll above the square. He was talking about the building that was torn down decades ago, which once stood where the bank is now. At the time, the building was virtually empty, and in a state of disrepair, and it was a sorry thing. Nevertheless, the description feels positive to me. It gave me this image of the church as a figure; a soft and shapeless woman, hovering about like fog, with ample room for all under her warm and fuzzy cloak. And she will not go away, no matter what. This is the ground she haunts. I think of Quan Yin as a little mini version of the church itself; a presence that abides; whose hands are empty because everything has been poured out into the world, and is in us – ready.
There is a line in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus, after healing many different people says, “Foxes have dens, and the birds of the air have nests, but the child of man has nowhere to lay his head.” He was exhausted, but could not find anyplace to be. He was either surrounded by people who clutched desperately at him with impossible demands, or he was being demonized and chased away by people who were afraid of him and his powers. How and why do we have a world in which it can be so hard to find rest; a safe place to lay our heads, let alone our burdens? The animals can find their burrows and nests, but what does the natural order of things provide for human children? We are dependent upon each other, but we do not always give freely. We are fearful, or judgmental, or blind. We can become pawns in someone else’s script without even realizing it. When Jesus was born, no one would offer his parents shelter. They were strangers there; traveling purely to register with the census, and no one wanted them. They seemed irresponsible and out of place, and there was no room for them in any of the inns of Bethlehem. So Jesus was born out back, in the stables, among the animals, and laid in the feeding trough.
Perhaps you have heard the old story about the Christmas pageant during which this story came out all wrong. When the church school director asked who wanted to be in the pageant, a boy named Wallace, who was slow in school and not good at sports, who was big for a third grader – Wallace volunteered. He wanted to be a shepherd, guiding the animals and then being drawn in by the light above the stable. Instead, the director asked him to be the innkeeper. She thought that it would be good because he was big, and a bit loud, so when he turned the family away and said No, it would feel authentic. She also thought it was a good way of keeping Wallace away from the other kids. Three shepherds who were all friends would have more fun. Everything went along, and then it came time for the performance. Joseph and Mary slowly labored up to the inn, and knocked on the door. When Wallace opened it, he stared, and Joseph asked for a room.
“No,” said the innkeeper. “We are full. You will have to travel on.”
“But we can’t,” said Joseph. “This is my wife, Mary, and you can see she is great with child.”
The innkeeper looked at Mary, and he looked at Joseph, but he didn’t say anything. Soon the children playing Joseph and Mary were staring at Wallace, waiting for him to say his lines. The director started whispering, loudly, feeding Wallace his lines: There is no room.
But the innkeeper didn’t speak, and finally Mary and Joseph just started to leave anyway, as if he had banished them. And that’s when Wallace found his voice, and solved the problem. “Wait!” he said. “Don’t go! You can have my room.”
Of course, none of the actors knew quite what to do, now that they were off script, and so the pageant ending was a bit odd, and there were people who believed it was ruined. Probably the parents of all the kids who had yet to appear as angels or shepherds or animals or wise men were none too happy. But is the point for Jesus to be born in the stable, or for something to be born in all of us that lets us offer ourselves to one another?
I went searching to see where exactly this alternative version of the nativity came from. The answer is, the Baptist Herald of Dec. 15, 1968. Interesting timing. The previous winter had been filled with unrest at major universities, like Howard and Columbia. On February 11, the black sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike. They were protesting the law that forced them to sit in the back with the garbage when it rained, while white workers could seek shelter in the cab of the truck. Ten days earlier, two men had been crushed to death by the compressors, and their broken bodies had to be retrieved from the trash. The strike went on for over two months, and the racism of the mayor only intensified the problems. One week after Martin Luther King was killed while in Memphis to support the strikers, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. And the next week, the Memphis sanitation workers were finally able to join the union, and get the wages and the safety protections that their white colleagues had. It wasn’t a change of direction so much as a giant pause that let us all know that things were going to proceed differently than they had in the past. The narrative does not have to go the same way.
One of the ancient models for Quan Yin was Persephone; the sacrificial daughter who went with Hades to the underworld for six months of the year, so that we could have a green earth in the spring; and we can see the same themes in the story of Jesus. Echol Cole and Robert Walker, the men who died in the garbage truck in Memphis did not choose to lay down their lives for others, but that is, in fact, what they did.
Our tradition encourages us to believe not in one savior for all, but in the potential of every single person to make this world into a beloved community. We believe in everyone. That means nothing is separate from us; not poverty, or injustice, or the people that our society teaches us to be afraid of; to pretend are not there. When a baby is abandoned or neglected, we see it for what it is – a vulnerable creature needing care and nurture. How old does that baby need to be before we suddenly become blind to those needs? At what point do we feel fear instead of compassion?
Sometimes my children say that the world is an awful place. They are hyper aware of all the ways in which we fall short. And it is true that these stories of lives being sacrificed are still being played out. We don’t even have to look to find them – and it hurts. Yet confronting this means things can change. Seeing what is wrong withdraws its power over us. We do not need to live in dread or fear. We can leave the script behind. That’s what our children are doing. And to them belongs the kingdom of heaven — right here; beauty amidst the dirt of our world.
Closing Words from the Diary of Anne Frank
I’ve found that there is always some beauty left — in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can help you. Look at these things, then find yourself again, and God, and then you regain your balance.
And whoever is happy will make others happy too.
Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!
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