Archive for September, 2016
“Sinking Stars, Rising Seas”
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
September 24, 2016
Opening Words from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss whether they was made or only just happened. Jim, he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to MAKE so many. Jim said the moon could of LAID them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.
Reading from War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hertmans
My grandfather Urbain Martien was the kind of lad who stole everybody’s heart. He was solidly built, with long curly hair, sturdy hands, and guileless blue eyes. Waddling after his statuesque mother like a duckling, entertaining her with his whimsical ways and irrepressible urges to entertain.., he would dance in his clogs while she scrubbed laundry… During Sunday car rides six decades later, still happy as a child in his old age, he could stare at the perfection of a Boeing gliding through the air high overhead and say, it was all so beautiful, everything he saw in this world…. Standing in the sun on an Easter Sunday morning at the age of seventy, he could blurt out with tears in his eyes that the blue of the flowering irises in the backyard was so unfathomably deep around their bright yellow hearts that it gave him palpitations, and it was a shame that a person had to die without ever understanding how such things came to be.
When it was explained to him as a seven year old in catechism classes that you simply could not see God – not even on a cloudless day -because God was invisible, and on top of that, even on cloudless nights you couldn’t look past the stars to the place where He reportedly dwelled, and accordingly, faith could not be verified, because then it would no longer be faith, he broke in: “Yes, but, Reverend Father, then you might just as well say that there are millions of sea horses floating around in heaven, since nobody can see it anyway.” The astonished priest’s jaw dropped open as if the hinge had snapped.
Those sea horses, drifting through dark and infinite space, in between the stars, sometimes light years apart, have never left my imagination, and they still come floating by, numberless hosts of them in sublime silence, whenever I hear talk of proving God’s existence. Yet Urbain Martien was a man of faith, and more than that; after returning from the Great War, …he got up early and polished his boots and shuffled through ice and snow, even on days when the priest could not be bothered, to sit in the cool silence of the parish church, murmuring prayers, lighting candles, bowing his head.
Sermon Sinking Stars, Rising Seas
Did you ever see one of those maps from the Pacific Islands; sticks and bark woven together at critical points with coconut fibers, and interspersed with shining white shells? Years ago, walking through a gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, on my way to an exhibit, I saw these artifacts on display and stopped in my tracks. They were so beautiful! Varying in size, with strands suspended from pieces of driftwood, they could collapse and fit inside a blueprint tube; or be hung like those old beaded curtains made for Turkish cozy corners; that bizarre combination of solid and transparent; a presence registered by a breeze awakening rattly life. It seemed perfectly obvious that they would be in a fine arts display, under glass. But I was intrigued when I read what they were – not art, but a tool. An ancient GPS –– a map of the stars, and of ocean swells, currents, and unmarked islands. The way they work, I learned from Margaret Mead, was to slide the shells into place to match the sky you are seeing right now. If you are out in your boat, and night falls, and you are disoriented, you position the shells to match the lights in the heavens, and then you will know where you are; which waves to ride.
I almost get it. I read somewhere else that these maps were highly localized, and really could be interpreted only by the map-maker himself. This was comforting; gave me permission to appreciate without understanding. There is something riveting about items that are profoundly of this world – natural materials readily at hand, with deeply practical purpose and containing such basic geographical information – that are simultaneously spectral, communicating across time and space, carrying us somewhere. Also, unspoken in all of this, is an assumption that we really know the stars – that we can identify them and place the constellations in a living drama over our heads.
This year was supposed to have been one of the best times in a century to see the stars falling from the sky. When I was ten years old I read about the Perseid meteor showers, and have wanted to see them ever since. I have stayed up all night, watching, and seen nothing; and I have laid out on stone beaches, and been rewarded with a few streaks, but I remain more pleasantly haunted by the image in my story book than anything I’ve actually seen. Two boys climb a hill in the evening, and, having completed the farm chores, throw themselves down under a cherry tree in silent exhaustion. One boy is an orphan, who has been through a lot and is perpetually in danger of seeming a victim; less than. But he has this moment. He makes a prediction – you will see a shooting star in the next five minutes, he says, and the other boy laughs at him. Sure. But then a star zips across the sky, and the disbeliever grows a little alarmed; rises from the ground, questioning. His friend says, just wait. You will see at least 25, and soon enough, the pinpricks above begin moving through the night like fireflies, and the observer’s scalp tingles. How is this happening? His friend makes him number the stars before admitting that he is not really running the show. It is just nature; an annual meteor shower, predictable to those who know the patterns of the planets.
How would one of those island maps cope with the stars moving through the sky like that? Somehow, it is perfect, the capturing of disorientation. Like the heavens are telling you, you can’t navigate right now; you can’t sail on or find a port. All you can do is watch in wonder, and awe.
This summer I read a book that sounds perfect for a UU, because the protagonist is an Italian bookseller living in Lebanon or Syria, just at the cusp of the modern world. Balthasar is Christian, but his best friend is Jewish and most of his trading is with Muslims in the Ottoman world, and everything centers around books. Despite this lovely diversity, it was actually a terrible read, partially because the characters were not particularly interesting or real, but mostly because it takes place in the year 1666, when – according to some readers of the book of Revelation — the world was supposed to end, and everything that happens is a sign. So our drought, Louisiana’s flooding, California’s wildfires; Italy’s earthquake; and everywhere, and with devastating regularity, the shootings and the fear and rage – I had to keep fighting back this feeling that the horror might also be supernatural; as if reality on its own wasn’t quite terrible enough. Balthasar, like me, doesn’t believe in the prophecies and predictions. He is man of reason. But that doesn’t stop him from wondering – is this the end? Each time the dates and times are reinterpreted, he lies down at night afraid that if he does sleep, he might not wake up again – and mad at himself for the fact that such a thought has wormed its way in. In my head, a phrase from tenth grade English class replayed on infinite loop: TS Eliot, the Unitarian who left us and became Anglican, concluded a poem with vicious words disguised in a nursery rhyme: This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.
It has seemed to me that for many long months, maybe even years now, there have been people announcing desperate calamities with a tone that is vaguely triumphant and smug, along the lines of I told you how awful it all is…. I think that is what resonated for me throughout Malouf’s book – the part I couldn’t shake off. When terrible things happen, those who believe are actually sort of excited and happy – it is proof of their God, even if it does mean the end of the world. But for the people who don’t believe, these events are incredibly painful and have a huge cost. Human lives – OUR lives – are lost; we are irretrievably hurt and broken; and we are also left wondering – maybe the doomsayers have a point; maybe there really is a God who would wipe out all of creation. Doesn’t this seem like either way, we lose? How does this all work? Where are we? This is not the world I grew up as part of, and it is not what I want to pass on.
For much of the summer I was thinking about water. My youngest son went to sea for two weeks; 13 people in a boat about the length of our living/dining room, and not nearly as wide. At night, they laid the paddles flat across the hull, and slept like sardines. My particular sardine would be the one whose shins stuck out over the edge. I kept thinking to myself; this could be the defining experience of his life, in a very good or a very bad way. Every day I would wonder – is this heat worse out there on the ocean, or better? Are they having to row hour after hour in this? And every night, I would pray that it not rain; and yet wonder, maybe it should – better at night with a tarp than during the day, with no cover. Yet I was painfully aware that we really needed the rain. The grass in my yard was crunchy and beige. Even the reliably damp and foggy Maine coast had day after day of California weather. What do we want for our own little selves, versus the world we all share?
My older son informed me, in the midst of the waterless summer, that Beijing was sinking, which was news to me. But I did know about Florida – the sinkholes opening up and swallowing whole houses; sections of highway collapsing back into nothingness. Underground, Florida is webbed with caves and tunnels in limestone that is eroding. Some of this is from acid rain and its effect on the terrain; some is due to aging infrastructure, like sewer pipes and septic systems falling in to disrepair; most is from heavy drilling and pumping out of groundwater, from development. And sinkholes are more likely to appear after a drought.
This week, in the suburbs of Tampa, a 45 foot wide hole appeared, but this time the problem isn’t the hole itself. It’s the location, under a fertilizer plant. A byproduct of the manufacturing process is radioactive water, and so far 215 million gallons of this water has leaked into the aquifer below the lacy limestone, where the drinking water is located. These aquifers are also being contaminated with ocean water – – Florida is subject to sea surges, and the limestone acts like a sponge. Instead of receding, the ocean water seeps into the holes underground, and works its way into what was the fresh water supply. It is the creation story, deep separated from deep – but it is going in reverse. The barrier between the waters crumbles and the deluge comes from all sides. The glass bottomed boats and their view of native fish and plants disappear, replaced with algae and mud. But coastal projects keep being developed; insurance policies still encourage rebuilding in flood zones; and people keep moving in. Miami, like Beijing, is drowning under the weight of its own economic success.
What do we do with these facts? Nobody comes to church to be depressed; to be hit over the head with insoluble problems or to dwell on the sorry state of the world. Nor do we want to debate policy, strategize about legislation. Yet we can’t ignore reality, either — The rising seas, the holes in the landscape, the violence we live with. Later in the book that the source of our reading this morning, Stefan Hertmans writes of visiting the serpentine river in Belgium where his grandfather fought in the First World War; the field and the mud flats where so many boys died, and notes that it is “a landscape with the invisible scars of a submerged catastrophe.” Lovely and peaceful, with poplars standing by the water on a cool day in the spring; with cormorants and grebes drifting over, and a heron standing sentry, it is hard to see the truth: This is the current that once divided life from death. The water flows over the past; the ground shifts around, absorbs the losses. And aren’t we like that, too? So much of who we are, of what has pained us and shaped us and matters deeply to us, is invisible, unseen.
When my son returned from his sailing expedition, he told me this highlight: a luminous and transfixing moment. Late, late at night, way out at sea, he stuck his hands in the water and saw that they were glowing; electrified. Watching him trying to talk about this was to see the limits of language – which made the whole experience more precious, and more isolating – like Urbain Martien, from the reading – crossing that divide, surviving the war, and returning home to rise in the dark and tramp to church; to sit with head bowed, reciting prayers; a vessel for that boy who saw seahorses beyond the stars.
Decades after his grandfather has died, Stefan Hertmans is riding the EuroStar back from London to Brussels, when his own son – who never met his older relative – says, “You know, I used to imagine that the Channel Tunnel was made of glass and you could see the seahorses swimming above your head, and now I don’t even feel like we are crossing the sea at all.”
Living is not about belief or disbelief. Instead, we long to know ourselves as participants in a shared story, one that conveys meaning, even if we can’t quite explain – like a glimpse through the windows beyond the stars, or of the phosphorus that lights up a boy in the ocean. Asher told my mother about the glow in the water, and I watched her face time travel as she recaptured a similar experience six decades earlier. These wild places, where the strange and the beautiful collide; this primal, startling creation that feels poised to change dramatically – to be located only on a map conjured of shells and twigs – places where we are simultaneously astonished and centered — They allow us to feel that something so all-encompassing is also vulnerable; that it offers something that could just disappear; that we can’t hold on to. It makes us want to suspend time; make the experience reliable; something we can guarantee to another generation, and another. We become extremely aware of life, of love, of time – and the impulse to map the events of our days onto a larger epic; to be part of a prophetic narrative. It reminds us that save the people, we have to save the land.
It can be hard to talk about topics when we don’t actually know what to do; how we can comfort and console while also saying a catastrophe is unfolding. Maybe this is why we so often end up choosing between denial and a righteous embrace of doom. I think this is where the cartoons of believers enter the scene, carrying their signs crying “Repent, Repent.” But it is part of the work of faith to raise issues, ESPECIALLY when we don’t know what to do. Confronting reality can help, and it can also show us that our assumptions about time and possibilities are not necessarily true. We can change in ways we can’t predict. A biologist in Florida talks about Miami, and says that the end is coming, physically and economically. “The real estate will disappear, and peoples’ investments, and the infrastructure. But if we plan for it, we can take a slow slide to a different reality… That’s my goal. A slow ride, rather than a crash… The slower the change happens, the more people are able to adapt to it. It can be bad or it can be really, really, really bad—take your choice.”
Years ago, when we bought our cottage in Maine, the woman next door announced that she had always taken care of the house, and would continue to do so. Taken aback, I simply said, Oh. We passed papers in October, so many, many months passed before we went inside the next spring. The house looked neat enough, but it SMELLED. Bad. Eventually I found a lovely little altar on a bureau; a sand dollar and two shells. The caretaker had carefully decorated for us. But the shells had not been ready to put on a shelf. They were part of the beach, the great ongoing drama, and that smell let us know that despite all appearances, they were not finished dying.
I think of Huck and Jim out on the raft, traveling only under the cover of night, and debating whether the stars are natural, or something more than that. The falling ones are spoiled, shoved from the nest of heaven, says Jim – introducing pain and loss into something that is nevertheless beautiful and part of a long, shared struggle to find a new way.
Closing Words Swift Things are Beautiful, by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Swift things are beautiful:
Swallows and deer,
and lightening that falls
Bright-veined and clear
Rivers and meteors
Wind in the wheat,
The strong-withered horse,
The runner’s sure feet.
And slow things are beautiful:
The closing of day
The pause of the wave
that curves downward to spray,
The ember that crumbles,
The opening flower,
And the ox that moves on
In the quiet of power.
“My Heart Went Crazy” – Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – September 18, 2016
Call to Worship – from Martha Nussbaum
To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it is based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.
First Reading – from Lost On a Mountain in Maine by Donn Fendler
Second Reading – “In View of the Fact” by A. R. Ammons
The people of my time are passing away: my
wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year-old who
died suddenly, when the phone rings, and it’s
Ruth we care so much about in intensive care:
it was once weddings that came so thick and
fast, and then, first babies, such a hullabaloo:
now, it’s this that and the other and somebody
else gone or on the brink: well, we never
thought we would live forever (although we did)
and now it looks like we won’t: some of us
are losing a leg to diabetes, some don’t know
what they went downstairs for, some know that
a hired watchful person is around, some like
to touch the cane tip into something steady,
so nice: we have already lost so many,
brushed the loss of ourselves ourselves: our
address books for so long a slow scramble now
are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: our
index cards for Christmases, birthdays,
Halloweens drop clean away into sympathies:
at the same time we are getting used to so
many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip
to the ones left: we are not giving up on the
congestive heart failure or brain tumors, on
the nice old men left in empty houses or on
the widows who decide to travel a lot: we
think the sun may shine someday when we’ll
drink wine together and think of what used to
be: until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every
loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter
and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. . . .
In July 1939 a twelve year old boy, along with his father and others started to climb Mt. Kathadin in Maine, the northern terminus of the Appalachian trail, and reputedly its most rugged mountain. The group was neither experienced nor prepared for the climb, and had little idea of what lay before them. The boy, Donn Fendler, ran ahead of the group, but the sunny skies soon turned grey. It started to pour. Donn became scared, and ran back down the mountain to find his father. Within a few minutes he lost the trail, and then nothing he encountered looked familiar. He stumbled over huge boulders, but remained convinced he would run into his father and be safe once again.
In July 2016, a sixty-four year old man, along with two of his sons and a friend started to climb Mt. Kathadin. The group was neither experienced nor prepared for the climb, and had little idea of what lay before them. The day was scorching hot, and their water supplies dwindled quickly. Despite some moments when the man feared he would lose his balance and fall backwards, and other occasions when the younger climbers needed to assist him in ascending over impossible rock formations, they finally made it to the top of the mountain, only to realize they had to descend on a trail that was nearly as steep as the one they just climbed. It took the man so long to get down the mountain, he wondered in places if he had lost the trail. With the help of many, the journey up and down Kathadin was complete.
Donn Fendler was not so lucky. He didn’t find his father, but remained lost for nine days in the Maine wilderness, while hundreds of volunteers looked for him. He lost twenty pounds, most of his clothes, and was nearly eaten alive by every insect in the lexicography of bugs. He suffered from frostbite, had severe cuts and experienced hallucinations, but he never gave up hope. It was an amazing story of survival and the will to live. To this day, he continues to speak before groups about his adventure, telling young people and others to keep the faith and never give up until you reach your goal. While the Harris family climbers were also eaten alive by bugs, and the father had cuts and bruises, their ordeal was not harrowing. Yet all climbers on Kathadin are viscerally reminded that life presents us with difficult challenges where human vulnerability to serious injury, illness and general life perils are ever present.
The other night Andrea and I walked over to the Belmont Cinema to see the movie “Sully.” It is the true story of the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson,” when Chesley Sullenberger, a veteran of nearly forty years of commercial airline piloting landed a jet on the river and saved the lives of 155 people in 2009. Until I saw the movie, I assumed that Sully, played by Tom Hanks, was a universally acclaimed hero. While the media and the public lauded his actions, the National Transportation Safety Board apparently had other ideas, and launched an investigation of what they termed a crash, and Sully called a “forced water landing.” Sully said that both engines failed after a collision with a flock of geese, but the NTSB records showed otherwise. Sully said the landing on the water was necessary, but the NTSB said simulations showed he could have made it to a nearby airport.
What became clear according to this version of the story is that the NTSB was doing everything in its power to incriminate him and prove that he was wrong, so that they had a person they could blame. Even once he proved himself, the board was never able to admit it was sorry for taking him to task, and questioning his judgment and ability. They seemed to come from the Trump school of never admitting you are wrong, and never apologizing. A pilot who was dedicated to always doing his job, began to question his abilities and actions once he was brought before a panel that wanted to find fault with him. We live with him as he dreams of tragedies that could have occurred, such as crashing into buildings. He became gripped with fear and self-doubt because of their accusations.
Whether we speak of some historic event such as this near tragedy on the Hudson, or our own trials including accidents and failures such as encounters with ocean waves, dismissals from jobs we love, or failed relationships, we are all rendered more vulnerable by news that threatens our health, our livelihood, and / or our families. We want to avoid dealing with these painful, vulnerable moments in life, and so we are often schooled in denying them or defending ourselves against them. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum believes that recognizing one’s vulnerability is a precondition for living an ethical life. “To be a good human being,” she says, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, the ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered.”
We tend to run away from the difficult or complicated parts of our lives, or we deny them, or defend ourselves from feeling them. Growing up, I learned that emotions could destroy me, and so if I expressed anger or sorrow, I believed things would fall apart. We learn that having moral character means we are in control at all times, and certainly don’t share anything about our “complicated, messy humanity” with others. Members of my congregation in Milton feared the introduction of joys and sorrows into our worship service, because as some of them said, “we don’t share feelings in church.”
Nussbaum says that each person’s life is a complex narrative of human effort in a world full of obstacles. We each have a lifetime of Mt Kathadin’s where we bleed, take wrong turns, get lost, need markers pointing the way, and need help from others literally lifting us over places where we might otherwise fall. In a sense we each create a book of life, but we sometimes fail to realize that life is not predictable, and we are not in control. I had a book of life that said my family’s history of disease and illness always centered around cancer. After all, both of my parents had fallen victim to cancer. No one ever had any issues with their heart. In fact our hearts were strong and steady and healthy. That was my book of predictability about my life. Then my heart went crazy. A routine visit to the doctors ended up with the detection of a heart rate that was beating at an excessive rate, and was out of rhythm. I have had lots of tests, one procedure, am taking medication, and in early November will have another procedure. Is this another instance of a minister using all of life’s experiences as sermon fodder? After I was hit by an ocean wave more than twenty years ago, my sermonic responses were dubbed, “Mark on the Rocks.”
Do you live by a book of life that you have created? Have you invented what illness you will get or how long you will live? Did you invent how accomplished your children would be? Issues or problems our children develop are often difficult things to accept, and so it is much less hurtful, to finely develop an inability to look at our own vulnerability when we silently tell ourselves this isn’t happening, or it is someone else’s fault. A sudden illness reminds us how vulnerable we all are. There is no real predictability as to when we will fall victim to illness or disease. This illness of mine was not particularly age related. We can pursue our own responsible behavior of eating right and exercising, but there are also elements of chance and luck in any of life’s endeavors. An episode like this makes you realize how vulnerable and scared you can feel when your life is threatened or challenged in any way.
It is terribly scary to truly recognize that life can threaten us in a remarkable variety of ways, from getting sick and becoming incapacitated to losing a way of life that is both necessary and precious. Yet recognizing these emotions will lead us to living an authentic way of life. There are a few myths about vulnerability that are worth recognizing, because we will see how exploring our own vulnerability will help us become more morally developed people. First, most of us learned that showing vulnerability is a sign of weakness. We are emotional beings who wish not to be emotional, and withhold acknowledgments of neediness, as being needy is thought of as bad. So we learn, Martha Nussbaum says, to design for ourselves a life in which these acknowledgments have no place. We are the only animals for whom neediness is a source of shame, and we take pride in ourselves to the extent to which we have gotten clear of vulnerability. So young adults think they are invincible. When I was young I often said, I never get sick. I never use health insurance. Why do I even have it?
While we think we will remain healthy for a long time if we just live right, we also think that we won’t be subject to job loss or broken relationships if we just remain the responsible person we are. I recall when a doctor with whom I was friendly in my former congregation was summarily fired because a new administration was hired at a certain Boston hospital. His firing had nothing to do with skills or ability, it was simply that the new administration wanted their own person. What a shock it was to me to learn that someone so skilled could lose his job so easily. The second myth about vulnerability is that some of us don’t experience it. We think vulnerability is for those weak people, not the strong ones of us, who are not emotional, but treat every challenge with a rational response. They are the Stoics who think showing emotion means we are out of control. In fact, we all experience vulnerability. This happens when we give love, and are rejected, or like Sully when we do our job and others still question everything we do. Remember his nightmare about crashing into buildings. Finally, we think expressing our vulnerability means spilling our deepest, darkest secrets. It is like the paranoia the congregation felt about expressing emotions. What it means is that you are being real with others and not fake. If we have to be right, and if we have to be in control, then we will never expose our vulnerability to another human being, and thus fail to connect with them.
Our ability to cope with our vulnerability has a direct relationship to our ability to trust. We all know we feel most vulnerable when trust is broken. If we are sick, we feel most vulnerable when we wait for the doctor’s call to tell us what the results of the test are. The longer we wait the more vulnerable we feel. All of us want to make real connections with others, and when we think about times we felt most vulnerable, it was usually when trust was broken. We feel most vulnerable in love when the person who was going to call fails to do so. We want to hear from the doctor to say we are all right, or we want to hear from that lover who will tell us they miss us.
We feel vulnerable at church, too. We may want to be part of a dinner group, but the invitation never comes. We may want to find a friend but nothing ever works out. We are vulnerable when the relationship is never broadened to include us. They didn’t make me part of the honors group in college, or my marriage ended in divorce, or the failure of my company or my church to grow is a reflection on me. Many events remind us that we do not feel good enough.
Yet in this vulnerability about perceived failures or weaknesses we see our deepest desires for connection. The sociologist Brene¢ Brown says that people who find these connections through their vulnerability have a couple of things in common. She says that first, they have courage. This is not bravery in battle, but courage going back to the original meaning of the word, which comes from the French word coeur or heart. We tell each other who we are with our whole hearts. We don’t focus on how we have been hurt by being vulnerable, we talk about being vulnerable as being necessary to knowing others. Rather than speaking of our unworthiness, or those exclusive times where our vulnerability was made raw, we believe with our whole hearts that we are worthy to make connections with others. So vulnerability is not only about the place where we feel fear or shame or unworthiness, but it is also the place where we realize we are worthy of being loved, do belong with others, and can live with joy and openness. So rather than rejecting vulnerability, this open heartedness embraces vulnerability as a good thing, as a builder of human connections leading to moral depth and human understanding.
As my heart shows me the vulnerability of flutter and speed, I want to contemplate how I can live with a more open heart; more open to being uncertain, and less inclined to follow the book of control. Brown also reminds us that we live in a vulnerable world for all those reasons of rejection and fear that I have already enumerated. She says we tend to numb vulnerability with spending, eating, or drinking. We might feel that this meeting at work or church makes me question everything I do. So we say, I think I’ll have a drink to absorb the feelings of frustration.. We numb the negative feelings like grief or fear or disappointment. But the problem is, she says, that you cannot selectively block feelings, so if frustration is numbed, so is joy and gratitude and happiness.
The world is made up of one giant Kathadin, that each of us has to climb. I would never have made it without my sons to lift me, and the strangers to give me nourishment. Everyone’s needs are met more effectively through cooperation. We are all vulnerable to life’s trials. When I was in the operating room at Mt. Auburn, and the doctor was about to administer the anesthesia, I noticed a file, and asked her about it. It said H-A-R-M in large letters with a slight gap between the R and the M. I asked her if this was file on how to inflict HARM on patients. I think she missed my joke and explained it was the first three initials of my last name, and my first initial. At least I knew, but my joke was also a way to numb my feelings of fear, as I fumbled to feel trust for those who were there to heal me.
Brown says, we are imperfect, and we are wired for struggle, but nevertheless, we are worthy of love and belonging. But when we exclude or hurt others, we often can’t admit our vulnerability. Instead of seeing each other’s vulnerability, we act to exclude or hurt or reject. Modern philosophers and psychologists tell us that seeing our vulnerability to life’s struggle will help us respect ourselves more, and be more responsive to others as well, This is also an ancient message. We see it in the story of Adam and Eve, when they recognize they are naked before one another. It is a source of shame, but more important, it is a source of knowledge, of greater depth where we can let ourselves be truly seen by one another. In Christian scriptures in Second Corinthians 12 , Paul says,” for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me . . . then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” In our need to be with others who recognize our common vulnerabilities, we also build stronger churches.
A few weeks ago I was wandering around an antiques store in Lowell. I noticed an unusual piece of baseball memorabilia. It was a Russian doll of a famous retired baseball player named Mike Piazza.. A Russian doll is kind of a symbolic representation of vulnerability. There are outer dolls that may protect our feelings of vulnerability, but they are often defenses for the feelings of hurt we harbor. They cover the core of the person, keeping people from knowing and connecting with the real me. Beneath the bigger, more perfect façade we find the real person, in all their integrity. The most solid doll is the one that does not hide inside of itself.
Madeleine L’Engle once wrote:“ When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.” Our readings today are from younger and older people reflecting on life experiences. Donn Fendler symbolically reminds us that there is a rock slide under our feet, and ultimately there are no trails where we are going, but if we keep a good sense of ourselves and our own worth , we will find our way. A.R. Ammons feels a different kind of vulnerability. Suddenly he is aging, and his friends are dying, and he feels the vulnerability of loss, and realizes that our vulnerability, if we embrace it, will ultimately help facilitate a deeper and brighter love. May it be so.
Closing Words – from Brene Brown
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.