Archive for February, 2017
“Rest Stop” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – February 26, 2017
Opening Words – “Another Way” by Jan Richardson
You have looked
at so many doors
wondering if your life
lay on the other side.
choose the door
to the inside.
Travel the most ancient way of all:
the path that leads you
to the center
of your life.
but the one
you make yourself.
but what you already carry
and the grace that comes
to those who walk
the pilgrim’s way.
Speak this blessing
as you set out
and watch how
your rhythm slows,
the cadence of the road
drawing you into the pace
that is your own.
Eat when hungry.
Rest when tired.
Listen to your dreaming.
as doors deeper in.
Pray for protection.
Ask for the guidance you need.
for the gifts that come
let them go.
Do not expect
by the same road.
Home is always
by another way
and you will know it
not by the light
that waits for you
but by the star
that blazes inside you
where you are
and you are welcome
Reading – On Generosity
On our own, we conclude:
there is not enough to go around
we are going to run short
we should seize the day
seize our goods
seize our neighbours goods
because there is not enough to go around
and in the midst of our perceived deficit
you come giving bread in the wilderness
you come giving children at the 11th hour
you come giving homes to exiles
you come giving futures to the shut down
you come giving easter joy to the dead
you come – fleshed in Jesus.
and we watch while
the blind receive their sight
the lame walk
the lepers are cleansed
the deaf hear
the dead are raised
the poor dance and sing
and we take food we did not grow and
life we did not invent and
future that is gift and gift and gift and
families and neighbours who sustain us
when we did not deserve it.
It dawns on us – late rather than soon-
that you “give food in due season
you open your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”
By your giving, break our cycles of imagined scarcity
override our presumed deficits
quiet our anxieties of lack
transform our perceptual field to see
the abundance………mercy upon mercy
blessing upon blessing.
Sink your generosity deep into our lives
that your muchness may expose our false lack
that endlessly receiving we may endlessly give
so that the world may be made Easter new,
without greedy lack, but only wonder,
without coercive need but only love,
without destructive greed but only praise
without aggression and invasiveness….
all things Easter new…..
all around us, toward us and
all things Easter new.
― Walter Brueggemann
Last week Jolie suggested that we all take a breath. I agree. In these trying times all of us need to stop, take a breath, and find sources of nourishment and replenishment, so that we might be re-energized to protest, resist or just try to make some sense of nonsensical policies or rhetoric. Today I am going to take that a step further, and suggest that we all take several breaths, and in fact that we take an extended rest from our labors, even go to sleep. Yes, take a nap. I know that’s hard to do during one of my scintillating sermons, but I believe you can do it. Do you remember Washington Irving’s story “Rip van Winkle?” Maybe we can fantasize what it would be like to sleep through the current administration. They say that Rip slept for more than twenty years, and we only need four; don’t even think about eight.
After he sleeps Van Winkle awakens to a world transformed. He doesn’t know anyone in his village, his son has grown up, and his wife has died. From a Puritan work ethic perspective, many of us would probably condemn him for being lazy and worthless. He enjoys hanging out by himself in the woods or carousing with his friends at the inn. Kids love him because he gives them lots of time and tells them stories or repairs their toys. And guess what? He avoids hard work. His laziness, and his loafing mean this laggard upsets his wife, and she begins to nag him. But can you blame her? Their home and farm have fallen into disarray. Nevertheless, he tries to avoid the nagging, wanders off, and we all know what happens next. He drinks some Dutch gin with some guys who are playing nine-pins. Pretty soon he ended up with twenty years of snoring. But this is not some morality tale. After he wakes up, he doesn’t regret what has happened. His grown daughter takes him in, and he continues to be lazy. Maybe he is just a good reminder that we need to rest from our labors.
My name is Mark and I am a workaholic. My wife called me that last week, and she is right. I complain that I am always at work, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am addicted to being productive. Ministers may have a public reputation for not doing real work, that is they sit around and read books all day. But in fact it is a profession that lends itself to working all the time because we are available, and on call 24/7, and even if we are reading books all day that is usually in the service of the next project, sermon, or paper we are going to present. I sometimes joke with Andrea about my Kindle Fire, calling it the best Christmas present ever. Unfortunately, it is the best Christmas present ever because it has email and the internet on it, and I can therefore work anywhere and anytime. My family members might be having a conversation, but I can just as easily be found with my nose in the kindle. And I am not reading some mystery novel for pure pleasure.
Instead I am reading your email, some social action update, or Googling the minutiae of Congregational polity. Here I am contemplating retirement, and I can’t even rest for five minutes. Andrea says she will be fine at our cottage, but what about me? This is the guy who has to go to town every day. And what about you? Can you put down the phone? Can you resist being connected? In a recent book called Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Pang writes, “rest is not something that the world gives us. It’s never been a gift. It’s never been something you do when you’ve finished everything else. If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.”
This topic made me think of places in our lives where there are designated rest stops. The people who designed our roads first began to notice the need for rest stops on highways in the late 1920’s. A county engineer in Michigan saw a family one day pulled over to the side of the road trying to eat a picnic on an old tree stump. He wondered what if the road had periodic stopping places that were park like, beautiful or scenic places, where travelers could refresh themselves? After World War II rest areas proliferated in every state, especially as the interstate highway system developed. Who among us does not have some wretched but enduring memory of crawling into a rest area for an emergency bathroom stop, a collection of brochures about all the wondrous sites in the panhandle of North Texas, or the sumptuous cuisine under the golden arches of McDonalds or Popeye’s crispy chicken.
Now that your mouths are watering, come along with me and pull over on mile 25 of the Maine turnpike in Kennbunk, or older folks may picture Howard Johnson’s orange roof, featuring 28 flavors of ice cream inside, or if you are headed cross country in the 1970’s a Stuckey’s suddenly appeared every few miles marked by a teal blue roof and the delicious Pecan logs for sale inside. While the food was disgusting and the kitsch junky, who can forget the physical and mental need for a rest after you have driven nearly 500 miles from Kansas City to Colorado Springs or past 300 miles of cornfields in Iowa so you have been hypnotized by endless green stalks? Rest your eyes. Rest your legs. You can stop singing now to keep yourself awake. Have a muddy cup of coffee and an Almond Joy, and stretch. Today I need a rest before I even start a trip, and after fifty miles the legs stiffen. All the more reason to reflect on the need for rest.
Rest and the need for it, is the culmination of the Biblical creation story from Genesis. God works hard for six days, and the seventh day, God rests. The story reminds us why Saturday became the Sabbath. God did not need to finish up on the seventh day. You can say God was efficient, and it is harder for us to get our work done. All the more reason to carve out a time for rest. Taking time for a Sabbath is the fourth commandment, the transition precept from those that are about God, and those that are about human relationships, perhaps indicating that what sustains us, and our relationship with the holy is how well we remember to observe Sabbath in our lives.
That Commandment says: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath.” Why have a day when we don’t work? For one it reminds us to feel a sense of reverence for the creation, that life is holy, and thus we put ourselves in right relationship with life. Jewish tradition would teach us that it is a reminder that God exists. Second, it reminds us of times when we have, like Moses and his people, been freed from slavery and endless trials and trauma, and we must therefore promote and preserve the well-being of our bodies. Take care of yourself, or you will end up tired and worn out. Why do we fail to take of our bodies? Why do we refuse to free ourselves from the slavery of being productive? At night I fall asleep in front of the television because I can’t convince myself to go to bed when I am tired, but only when it is the right time, and thus the clock is my master.
The idea for this sermon came to me when I heard my colleague John Gibbons in Bedford preach at a UU Minister’s meeting. John spoke in the wake of the Presidential election about a book by Biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann called Sabbath as Resistance. In that book, the author writes, “The way of mammon (capital, wealth) is the way of commodity that is the way of endless desire, endless productivity, and endless restlessness without any Sabbath. Jesus taught his disciples that they could not have it both ways.” You may recall the story from Matthew where Jesus says you cannot have both God and mammon, meaning wealth or material goods.
In John’s sermon the idea of Sabbath as resistance was clearly a response to the election of Donald Trump. Celebrating Sabbath in this sanctuary means that this is a time and place where the tyrant has no authority or power. So by coming to church we are resisting the values and beliefs that govern a world that is defined by production and consumption of commodities. You are removing yourself from the rat race of anxiety that tells you to always get ahead or always be buying the next thing. Celebrating Sabbath with each other is a different way of living and being in the world.
We are saying to each other, and proclaiming as a community that we will not allow our lives to be defined in the way that the predominant culture defines them. This Sabbath as resistance reminds us of the Black Church and its role in the civil rights movement. The black church was one place where African Americans had power and control. As a community they were able to define the parameters of life and relationships. There was no tyrant. There was no system of Jim Crow. They were not second class citizens. With authority they turned the world upside down, at least within their own world. This gave them power to build upon strength and thus resist the world that oppressed them.
They needed a place where there was no tyrant, and church was that place. This was part of an argument I made to members of the Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast Committee after thy decided not to have a religious invocation this year. Where do you think Dr. King derived his inspiration? When you remove the invocation from the breakfast, you delete the source of power behind this movement to change America, and you homogenize it. The holy spirit gave that movement power not the generic idea of being nice to each other. Sabbath is resistance.
Resistance as an understanding of Sabbath is clear to most of us. We create our own powerful vision for how the world should be right here. On the one hand we resist the tyrant and unjust proclamations about undocumented immigrants or denying choices in bathroom use for Transgender individuals. We create a welcoming place for all people, exactly what a church can be. We can also understand Sabbath as alternative. Alternative asks us to create an idea of economy that stands in opposition to the one that already consumes some degree of time that could be devoted to Sabbath.
Reflecting upon an alternative culture and economy means how much we allow ourselves to be subject to advertising and the consumption of life depriving goods when we could devote more time and energy to life enhancing relationships, and find rest and renewal in being together as a community, and as a family that nurtures the spirit of reverence and awe in the creation. Those who are my age or older remember a time when Blue Laws made it so no stores were open on Sundays. After church when I was growing up, we would drive to the next town to the one store that was open and buy the Sunday paper, and if I was lucky, perhaps a pack of baseball cards for me. Sunday was a time for leisure, for a nice dinner with the family, games, a walk, a drive around the countryside.
No amount of wailing is going to bring back Sunday as a place that is not dominated by economy. The stores are open, and shopping dominates our leisure activities. And if not shopping then Patriots in pads become our religion – and so we wear funny, colorful costumes, cheer loudly, and demand the opponents blood. Many might say, I like football. I like shopping. But are you getting any rest? Are you reflecting on deeper things of the spirit? Do you have an alternative to work? Once we thought that work allowed us time to rest, and it was rest that gave us meaning. Now, where is the balance? How do we save ourselves from communications overload? When are we going to put down the phone?
The ostensible purpose of today’s service was to introduce the annual pledge drive to support the budget of the church. One can see in Jesus’ proclamation why church’s have traditionally feared talking about money. Making money often hurts others and destroys lives, and yet we all need it to survive, including the church. We are conflicted. We protest the fossil fuel economy. We weep for the water protectors in North Dakota, and yet we drive and fly everywhere. But too much of an obsession with money and the purchase of commodities means the life of the deeper spirit dries up and dies. Church remains one place in our lives where Sabbath is still held up for the holy influence it could still have upon us.
Church reminds us to resist the tyrant. Church reminds us to create an alternative economic altar where our relationship with our neighbors is more important than being better than him or her. I suspect most of you are here because you want to nurture those values of respect and understanding, rest and care and renewal, and you reject the values from ancient times that made slaves in Egypt because of constant toil where people existed to be used. There was no rest and no renewal. We only flogged ourselves each day to work harder and do more. Sabbath means that life needs a rest stop. We have driven ourselves far enough. Today I invite you to make a new map of your life that includes some rest stops.
We have a human need for Sabbath, because while work gives us the means to live, it is rest that gives meaning to life. On Friday my polity class at Harvard was considering whether UUs have sacraments or not; special rituals where the holy enters our days. One part of worship they believed revealed this was child dedication services where the community celebrates the wonder of life and its development in one person. They said that in this act we affirm the inherent grace of every person. Grace means that there is nothing you have to do be worthy – not work, or grades, or appearance, or purchasing power. You are already blessed, and always will be. I realized why tears come to my eyes when I dedicate a child. It is verification by the community of the beauty and value of each person without having to prove that to anybody. Without Sabbath, weekly moments of rest, we forget the beauty and reverence we are given by life. With Sabbath, we affirm it.
Today I ask you to support your church this year because it is one place in your life that says, think about taking care of yourself, of taking care of each other. Think about being generous with what money you have. This is a culture as our reading proclaimed that makes us fear that we are going to run out of money, or run out of things, but celebrating the Sabbath teaches us that we have what we need. It is a culture of gratitude for what we have. It is a culture of plenty where we know we have enough, and want to live in deeper relationship to others and to a vision that enhances life.
Finally, it is a culture that acknowledges that what we have grows deeper and more powerful when we share it with each other. Supporting this community means you recognize the abundance you have, and the blessings you have, and when you share those with this community it teaches you and your family to resist tyranny, resist injustice, and to envision an alternative order of society where you are not buying all the time or worshipping false gods. It teaches you how much you need a place of sanctuary from the world’s fear and anxiety, a place of sanctuary where you can rest and reflect and not work all the time. Support the place of sanctuary in your life, this place of welcome and safety, where you and your children can feel the power of the spirit, and the power of freedom to be you. Here we are accepted as we are even as we’re challenged toward whom we can become. Walter Brueggemann writes in “On the Sabbath” :
You do not have to do more.
You do not have to sell more.
You do not have to control more.
You do not have to know more.
You do not have to have your kids in ballet or soccer.
You do not have to be younger or more beautiful.
You do not have to score more.
Sabbath is rest, and it is a way of spiritual formation against acquisitiveness and competition and for compassion, justice and solidarity.
Closing Words – from Mark Harris
Charmian Proskauer suggested a theme for this year’s pledge drive “A Place for All of Us”
And I wrote this in response:
May this be a welcoming place – where people from many backgrounds and beliefs feel respected and affirmed.
May this be a learning place – where children and adults can grow their souls with open minds and hearts.
May this be an empowering place – where all members and friends learn and act in a world where we speak out when human rights are denied.
May this be a loving place – where everyone feels supported and cared for in a friendly and nurturing religious home.
This place for all of us grows stronger and more vital when you pledge your support of time, money and service
“What About Binitarians and Other Questions of the Spirit” by Jolie Olivetti –
February 19, 2017
The Last Rites of the Bokononist Faith (excerpt) by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”
“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.”
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud
that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!
“Holy Ghost” by June Robertson Beisch
The congregation sang off key.
The priest was rambling.
The paint was peeling in the Sacristy.
A wayward pigeon, trapped in the church,
flew wildly around for a while and then
flew toward a stained glass window,
but it didn’t look like reality.
The ushers yawned, the dollar bills
drifted lazily out of the collection baskets
and a child in the front row began to cry.
Suddenly, the pigeon flew down low,
swooping over the heads of the faithful
like the Holy ghost descending at Pentecost
Everyone took it to be a sign,
Everyone wants so badly to believe.
You can survive anything if you know
that someone is looking out for you,
but the sky outside the stained glass window,
doesn’t it look like home ?
From House of Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker
“The people of Le Chambon, a small village in France, harbored hundreds of Jewish children during World War II. Years later, when they were visited by one of the children – now a grown man – who had been sheltered there, he found himself asking why that village had sheltered Jewish children when so many others had not. He found his answer in observing their simple worship practices. Le Chambon was a Huegenot, Protestant village. A religious minority, accustomed to struggling to survive, they regularly gathered to sing hymns, to recall the faith of ancestors who had held fast to the spirit of love even in times of trial, to offer thanksgiving, and to pray for one another. When he asked them to explain, they said that they could not imagine responding in any other way. It was simple the shape that heir souls had. Their ways of worship had formed them for courage and resistance.”
SERMON “A Question of the Spirit” by Jolie Olivetti
I remembered something about singing yesterday. Talking with my sister about my sermon topic for today, she mentioned a skill we both learned as kids in the church choir – how to hold a really long note. In order to do this, we have to take turns breathing. This is what we are tasked with from time to time, and especially right now. We have to spell each other so everyone gets a turn to take a breath.
Over the last few months, I have read and agonized and talked about, I have marched and protested about, I have written and preached about the alarming political situation we are in. I know you all have done some of the things on that list as well. Maybe you’re like me and you’ve come up against total despair more than once. I feel short-tempered and irritable all the time, and I’m not sure whether to blame it on pregnancy or the rise of fascism around the globe. I feel fearful for our future and I don’t have the answers.
A friend who works in public health at the state level told me about the immediate impact of a draft executive order that was leaked a few weeks ago, on the use of public benefits by documented immigrants – people who are here with papers. No actions have actually been taken, just the threat of action, and still, in large numbers, new mothers are suddenly afraid to sign up to receive the benefits they need, because they are afraid this will make them subject to deportation. This is about food for pregnant women and nursing mothers, food for young children.
There is so much to resist. Travel bans on refugees and others coming from Muslim nations, the specter of dismantling the EPA, threats of mass deportations… I will not list it all right now. There is so much to resist, it’s overwhelming. It’s hard to know what to do. But this is not a sermon about taking specific actions, not today.
This is a sermon about taking turns breathing, about getting our breath back when the wind has been knocked out of us. How can we continue to come together to learn what is needed of us and what to do? How can we sustain the long note of resistance? For starters, we have to remember to breathe. In the Hebrew Bible, the word for breath is the same as the word for Spirit. So if this is a sermon about remembering to breathe, this is also a sermon about remembering the Spirit.
That word for breath and spirit is ruah. The ruah is the instrument of creation and also the fuel of prophecy. When the Lord breathes into the nostrils of the man he has formed from the “dust of the ground,” Adam comes to life. When Moses shares just the tiniest sigh of his own portion of the Spirit with seventy elders, they fall into a prophetic fit all around Moses’ tent. Just a little huff of the ruah from the Lord turns the ancients into prophets and kings, and raises the dry bones from the dead in Ezekiel’s valley.
We find the Spirit in the New Testament as well; in Greek, the word for wind and spirit is the same. In the book of Acts, the Spirit descends upon the followers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost: they begin to talk in tongues and they receive the divine commission to spread the faith as the early Christian church.
These are ancient accounts of Spirit, compiled before a doctrine of the Christian Trinity was set in stone. What are the three parts of the Trinity? The Father, or perhaps in less patriarchal terms, the Creator; The Son – that’s Jesus; and the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit. I don’t totally understand why, when historical Unitarians questioned Trinitarian Christian doctrine by proclaiming that Jesus is not divine, they collapsed the Spirit and Creator into a single Unity. The Trinity went right from 3 to 1. What happened to 2? Who cares?
The problem is that many of us UU’s skip over the concept of the Holy Spirit. The image of a kingly, all-powerful bearded guy with a robe still dominates our mental models of what God might be like, even for those of us who are more humanist or atheistic. When we say we don’t believe in God, we may be thinking that we don’t believe in an omnipotent sovereign who created all of this and who remains aloof from it.
This idea of a great king or judge in the sky overshadows the idea of Spirit, a holy force that moves through our world and shares its power with humankind.
This is not a matter of mere abstract theological pondering. Even for a humanist like me, to understand, to feel, to know something of Spirit is vital to my sense of myself, my place in the human family, my place in the cosmos. As a UU humanist, I interpret Holy Spirit to include the human spirit. Spirit distinguishes me as “sitting-up mud,” as the tracts of Vonnegut’s Bokononists put it. It’s how I know I am alive, how I feel part of something greater than myself, it’s what compels me to care and fuels me to keep going even when things are tough.
I met an oncologist in the bone marrow transplant unit where I was a chaplain last summer. He had two little figurines clipped to his stethoscope: a toy mouse and an angel. He explained that he wore the mouse to honor all the mice that had given their lives for cancer research, and he wore an angel because he has come to believe that it takes “something more” for his patients to get through serious illness. When he told me this, we were standing next to a woman lying in her hospital bed. She had been there for weeks, in the relative isolation that the treatment for this type of cancer requires. She teared up and nodded emphatically, “that’s the truth.” “Something more.” What is that?
Going around the hospital and knocking on doors, I would say to patients, “most people are here to check on your body, I’m here to check on your spirits.” That usually cracked a smile, and was a way of gently suggesting that, regardless of anyone’s faith tradition or observance, a chat with the chaplain could be useful. I wanted people to know that I believe all of us have spiritual needs: questions about how our lives knit into the whole and what it all means, including our fears about illness. We all have something ineffable in us, something “more” worth paying attention to, something that helps us know we are not just regular mud.
I had to attend to my own spirit with unwavering discipline while I was an intern chaplain. Otherwise I would be utterly empty, I would have nothing to offer patients and families if I neglected the things that replenished my spirits. I would pause in the hospital chapel between visits to breathe, write, or cry. After a shift, I would sit on my back porch and watched the sparrows scold the squirrels in the crisscrossing branches behind my house. I would sing a lot, too. The Hamilton soundtrack mostly, mostly in my kitchen at the top of my lungs. But also UU hymns, especially How Can I Keep from Singing? I would also often sing “Spirit of Life,” a hymn we hear here every week right after Joys & Sorrows, but rarely sing together. Last summer, I found that I really needed to invoke the Spirit of Life. I needed to, as the hymn goes, “Sing in my heart, all the stirrings of compassion.” What’s different now? Why not nourish my spirits now?
Perhaps it seems disconnected from reality to attend to our spirits given the urgency of the moment, given the attacks on our communities and eviscerations of our flawed but persistent attempts at democracy. But the story of Le Chambon from our reading this morning suggests that spiritual practice was precisely what equipped these villagers to do what was right during World War II. This town of barely 5,000 Protestants in France provided shelter and food for more than 5,000 Jews under Nazi occupation.
The man that Rebecca Parker & John Buehrens refer to in their retelling, the Jewish man who was born there and who went back to ask the people of Le Chambon why they had helped so many of his people, was named Pierre Sauvage. He made a documentary of his visit in the late 1980s called The Weapons of the Spirit. Bill Moyers interviewed Pierre Sauvage about the film shortly after its release. In the interview, Moyers is concerned about the film’s title, saying, If the spirit can be used as a weapon, it was insufficient to prevent the darkness, the ruin, the devastation, the horror and the evil that fell upon Europe in what you say is, or was, a “Christian” culture.
Moyers asks, “Isn’t there a danger in suggesting that the spirit can withstand the onslaught of human nature?”
I think on balance there’s a greater danger in not believing it, in believing that somehow the spirit does not have the power to transcend everything. You know, even when it comes specifically to the experience of Jews during the Holocaust… there was that concern that paying attention to the rescuers might somehow take the edge off the experience… I think that is simply not the case. I think that we need to know that it was possible for people to care. If we pass along a legacy that does not include the righteous, does not include the rescuers, then we’re giving humanity an alibi. One doesn’t even have to aspire to do better, because it isn’t possible.
Parker and Buehrens write about the spiritual practices that Sauvage also identified as the reason the people of Le Chambon acted so bravely, yet at the same time so simply human in harboring Jews under Nazi occupation. What made it possible for them to care? Here, again, is how Parker and Buehrens put it,
A religious minority, accustomed to struggling to survive, they regularly gathered to sing hymns, to recall the faith of ancestors who had held fast to the spirit of love even in times of trial, to offer thanksgiving, and to pray for one another. When he asked them to explain, they said that they could not imagine responding in any other way. It was simply the shape that their souls had. Their ways of worship had formed them for courage and resistance.
When our spiritual practices are strong, our capacity to channel the goodness and the power of Spirit is strong. Whether we’re facing cancer or fascism or both, authentic spiritual practices are not frivolous, a mere luxury. They help us prepare our souls for courage and resistance.
In the poem we heard this morning, the worship service is stifling and meaningless until a pigeon flies low overhead, “like the Holy ghost descending at Pentecost.” The sanctuary is then infused with holy power. And the poem reads, “You can survive anything if you know / that someone is looking out for you.” We need spiritual practices, we need worship services that help us feel the Spirit swooping right over our heads, touching us with the possibility of goodness, assuring us that we are not alone, that someone is looking out for us, saving us from despair.
Who do we feel is looking out for us? In our worship service here, it could be that we are looking out for each other. It could be that God, the Spirit, is looking out for us, moving through us. It could be that all of us are looking out for our neighbors beyond these church walls. When our spirits are full, we’ll have the power to do right by one another.
It’s going to take “something more” to get through all this. Here in church, we can greet one another with all the love in our hearts. We can light candles, meditate, and pray,
We can laugh or cry with one another, we can sing like we really mean it. Whether here in church, or out marching in the streets, weathering sickness or injustice, we must remember to breathe, to take turns breathing, because life’s song is long, and there are some difficult parts. We must attend to the practices that truly lift our spirits, the practices that infuse us with the spirit of life, so that, one breath at a time, we are strengthened to do this simple and human thing of looking out for one another.
“Unison Benediction” by May Sarton
Return to the most human,
nothing less will nourish the torn spirit,
the bewildered heart,
the angry mind:
and from the ultimate duress,
pierced with the breath of anguish,
speak of love.
Return, return to the deep sources,
nothing less will teach the stiff hands a new way to serve,
to carve into our lives the forms of tenderness
and still that ancient necessary pain preserve.
Return to the most human,
nothing less will teach the angry spirit,
the bewildered heart;
the torn mind,
to accept the whole of its duress,
and pierced with anguish…
at last, act for love.
“The Case of the Missing Car”
February 12, 2016
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words – from Coyote Wait, by Tony Hillerman
We have a legend about how First Man and First Woman had the stars in their blanket, and were placing them carefully in the sky. Then Coyote grabbed the blanket and whirled it around and flung the stars into the darkness, and that is how the Milky Way was formed. Order in the sky became chaos. Random… and yet, wasn’t there a pattern even in this evil deed; in the way Coyote behaved? …From where we stand the rain seems random. If we could stand somewhere else, we would see the order in it.
Reading “Nancy Drew: Curious, Independent, and Usually Right”
NPR Morning Edition, June 23, 2008, Renee Montagne
She was born in 1930, but she’s perpetually 18 — and always one step ahead of the adults: the iconic American girl sleuth, Nancy Drew.
“I’m pretty sure I started at the beginning, The Secret of the Old Clock,” crime writer Laura Lippman says, referring to the first of dozens of Nancy Drew mysteries. Lippman’s love of the girl sleuth put her on the path to creating her own best-selling series…
“One of the nice things about Nancy Drew books is that they validate curiosity as a virtue, which was not always the message that little girls were told,” Lippman says.
She does things she’s not supposed to do. For instance, her father is very often saying, “Nancy, this has nothing to do with you. Just stop.” In the old movies, she stands with her fingers crossed behind her back.
“But her father does encourage her to use her mind…. She’s really a free agent, and she’s very much an independent, autonomous person at the age of 16, and when you’re a little girl of 10 or 11, that’s really thrilling. ”
“I don’t think there is a casual reader of Nancy Drew,” says writer Fran Lebowitz. “There may be casual readers of Proust, but not of Nancy Drew.”
Lebowitz says she was obsessed with Nancy Drew and the entire cast of characters: Ned Nickerson, the sometimes useful kind-of boyfriend; Hannah the housekeeper; father Carson Drew; and Nancy’s adoring girlfriends, Bess and George.
“When I was 7- or 8-years-old, I had an operation on my eyes, and I was blindfolded for two weeks,” Lebowitz says. “[My mother was compelled] to sit by my bedside and read me Nancy Drew books all day long, because I couldn’t read myself. So even blindness didn’t stop me.”
Nancy’s appeal was her independence.
“Being a detective seemed to me like an excellent job,” she says. “It still seems like a pretty good job. And I still would like to have a roadster, a blue roadster. I still have not acquired one.”
Nancy drove her blue roadster everywhere, often recklessly, as she focused on the mystery at hand.
Over the years, Nancy Drew has evolved, but young readers appreciate the classic touches.
“In the newer books she wears more modern clothes but she always has a hint of vintage,” says fifth-grader Michaela Brown. “ It’s cool.”
Eleven-year-old Zoe Dutton says her mother handed her a childhood favorite of her own, The Bungalow Mystery, on a hot summer day before she started second grade.
“She’s constantly stumbling on smugglers and criminals and forgeries,” Zoe says. “It’s slightly unrealistic, but Nancy Drew can do this because she can sniff out a mystery like a bloodhound.”
Neither Michaela nor Zoe want to be Nancy Drew, partly because she’s a little too perfect.
“She’s always nice to everybody. She’s even polite to the criminal after she catches them and knocks them out … I mean slightly ridiculous, but it’s nice if you’re her friend.”
I loved Nancy Drew because of her curiosity, a fascination with assembling clues — or facts — into a story and her certain recklessness. For me those qualities add up what it takes to be … a reporter.
I didn’t know that then. I never imagined what I would become. I only knew that the moment I finished one Nancy Drew mystery, I couldn’t wait to plunge into another.
Sermon ” The Case of the Missing Car” Andrea Greenwood
A month ago, I left the grocery store and entered the parking lot with my impressive load of food and drinks. My neighbor was entering as I was leaving; I said hello and thought how odd it was that he was eating a hot dog. It was not quite ten in the morning. In addition to that seeming like a strange time for hot dog consumption, I wondered where it came from. He hadn’t gone into the store yet. There was nothing but a sea of parking — no street vendors, no food trucks. So I was puzzling over this when a greater mystery began to develop.
My car was missing.
I started off fairly confident that I had parked near a light post, and close to a wagon return cage. But the car was not there. So I had to rethink. Was I remembering a different shopping trip when I envisioned parking? Feeling a bit foolish, and worried about the increasing evidence that I really am losing my mind, I wandered about the huge lot, as if my car were a stray puppy that might return to my side. After a few minutes, I began to wonder, “Is this a joke? Am I on Candid Camera?” I was simultaneously counting my blessings – I had not bought ice cream — and wondering when I would stop feeling profoundly disoriented.
Then I spotted her. My van was innocently at rest in a space I had no memory of whatsoever. I kept pivoting around, waiting for something – who knows what? -to reveal itself – Then I started looking for damage – an impulse that was almost immediately followed by the desire to slink away before anyone saw me. There were no cracks or dents or car parts lying about; no sign of anything wrong at all, except my humiliating inability to keep track of my vehicle. So, I threw the food in the car, returned the wagon, and drove home, quickly, before anyone witnessed my confusion.
The car drove fine, although the driver was a bit rattled. As I concluded that the van had either been remotely controlled by aliens, or that my memory had succumbed to the ravages of time, I applied the logic of Sherlock Holmes, who said “the grand thing is to reason backward… In the everyday affairs of life it is more useful to reason forward, so the other comes to be neglected.”
I knew I had not really parked there. My car was resting at a slight tilt, the front tires against the concrete barrier at the top of a large drainage canal. The truth was that the car rolled across three full rows of the parking lot, seemingly without hitting anything, until it came into contact with the concrete. I kept wondering what it must have been like to watch. I picture a slow motion film, the sound track like the one from Jaws, my large van moving spontaneously and without a rudder, until it tipped into the drainage ditch. My neighbor’s hot dog seemed like a concession stand treat, something to chew while he watched the unfolding. But I couldn’t quite grasp the plot. Why did the car cross the road?
Last Sunday, while driving a friend in my new car, I told this story. Mary Katherine was completely freaked out. “But what happened?” she wanted to know. She said she was now going to live in fear of her car driving away on her. I had not expected this at all, but I should have. One hallmark of detectives – at least female ones – is that they love their cars. Sometimes it is obvious why – Maisie Dobbs’ spectacular 1928 convertible touring car, or Nancy Drew’s blue roadster, which Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor tells us she coveted, until she purchased a red Toyota Celica sports car herself, in a kind of homage, as a sign of her arrival. On the other end of the spectrum, Precious, the owner of the Number One Ladies Detective Agency, drives a miniature white van that is a constant reminder of mortality. It is very clear that the mechanic’s ability to continually resurrect the little white van is what causes Precious to fall in love with him.
When I was a junior in high school, a wonderful teacher invented a course called Decisions, basically a combination of values clarification and life skills. We had careers and salaries and made budgets, and had to match up our desires with our dollars, and make choices. In one of the exercises, Ms. Sellers enumerated what cars might mean, and it strikes me still that she communicated very clearly that a car meant “freedom.” It was the 1970s and there was a gas shortage and people lined up by license plate number on odd and even days, and so mostly cars meant dependency –commuting; being locked in to this need and dependent on foreign oil. She had one of those egg-shaped cars that looked like an aquarium hurtling down the road; glass outfitted with maroon and chrome trim. And it represented freedom. Even then, I knew I was learning something about her, and life, not about actual vehicles. They don’t represent freedom so much as our need to escape; to go someplace where we are independent and not subject to being unfairly silenced and judged.
My big white van was purchased on my 49th birthday. It was something of an impulse buy – a doctor cancelled an appointment, I had a free hour and half that I wasn’t expecting, and the time management skill necessary to being a one car family with kids in three different schools was wearing on me. Plus it seemed to me that every single time we went to Maine, with our luggage on the roof of the car, it rained. The van was big enough for us, and our stuff. It was leftover from the previous year, so deeply discounted, and in the ads for it, Brooke Shields appealed to my husband. So it did give me a certain kind of freedom – though after a couple of years I realized that it had liberated me to say yes to many things that I would have previously said no to, and therefore I was spending my life driving around in circles. But that is a different sermon. This sermon is about the mystery in the parking lot.
Now, as mysteries go, this is not a very good one. It lacks that genuine element of surprise required at the END of a mystery; where you go “oh, of course” even though you never saw it coming. Arthur Conan Doyle announced that the ideal detective needed three qualities: the power of observation, the power of deduction, and knowledge. Even a little bit of information about cars lets us guess that in my case, the transmission was gone – even though the car drove fine, it would not stay in park, and the mechanic who looked at it was clear that it was only a matter of time before it refused to stay in Drive, too. The repair was too costly for a car with 100,000 miles, even if was free of dings and scratches, so we set out to replace the irreplaceable.
Thirty years ago, during my internship, I wrote to ten ministers, asking for sermons. I wanted to study how they were constructed; how they conveyed meaning. Gary Smith, who was then the minister in Concord, sent me one called “Father, Do You Have Another Car?” The mechanic evaluating his troubled vehicle knew Gary was a minister, which translated to “priest” in his mind. The mechanic did not know how to break the bad news to a man of the cloth. Not everything can be made right in quite the way you are hoping for. This car was not going to come back. Father, do you have another car? How do we help people ease into loss, or prepare themselves for the tasks ahead? We sent our van to automobile heaven, and with it went our big family years. The days of expansion, of never enough room or enough time, gave way to the time of growing independence. I often remember a beautiful, wistful chat with a young father here. We were watching his daughter in the moment she learned to ride a two wheeler, and it was so energizing and triumphant, and then he said, “she’s riding away from me.”
This year, it seems like every time it is my turn to preach, something devastating has just happened. Fires, shootings, elections, executive orders…. It has been a challenging year, when these public tragedies are added to all the personal afflictions we all bear. And since the first of the year I’ve been filling in a church with a very set order to everything, using lectionary readings planned approximately 1700 years ago. Even though many of the stories about believing yourself to be chosen by God; about coping with being in exile; about the need to clothe the naked and feed the hungry and greet life with an open hand instead of a clenched fist – even though so many of these ancient stories are incredibly and sadly painfully relevant today – this actually can feel depressing. When will this story change? Do we ever learn? So today is a tiny respite; an observation of trifles that can reconnect us to a sense of mystery while also granting a degree of control.
There is no real escape from the world we inhabit, but we do not always have to approach it all head on; even when there is a sense of desperate urgency to halting what is unfolding before us. Diversions — turning to small pleasures and permanent truths can give us strength, and peace. There is a kind of sanctuary in solving detective stories; knowing that we can make sense of things, that we are competent and powerful. But the real power of these stories is not so much in the solving, but the process. We are required to pay attention! We have to notice every little thing. We have to think. And we have to become aware of all the strange and amazing things that are happening around us, all the time. You can’t start solving mysteries without being embedded in sense of wonder.
As a kid, I read Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown; as an adult, Jane Langton and Rabbi Small and Tony Hillerman, and in doing so I learned about faith and religion, as well as how to think. A 1976 People magazine article begins, “Charlie Chan relies on Oriental inscrutability, Miss Marple on feminine intuition and Shaft on street savvy. But when Rabbi David Small is faced with solving a crime, he tracks down the perpetrator with the help of a curious weapon: Talmudic reasoning.” Later, Harry Kemelman, the creator of Rabbi Small, explains that he wanted to convey the Judaic experience in an entertaining way. . … An avid fan of G. K. Chesterton’s crime-busting priest, Father Brown, Kemelman said, “I got more insight into Catholicism from reading Father Brown than I got in most of my studies in comparative religion.” Like the rabbi, who solves crimes while embroiled in ethical disputes within his temple in a town suspiciously like Marblehead, Kemelman said that he spent most of his time pacing up and down, asking himself questions.
The Puritans were absolutely convinced that God uses the commonplace to accomplish his transformation of people, and this led to a belief in strict observation. I am sure it had less pleasant social consequences, too, but it seems as though this practice would contribute to a strong sense of mystery. The Rev. Richard Greenham, a 16th century Puritan in England, wrote, “Because we know not who is the man, what is the time, where is the place, which is the sermon that God hath appointed to work on us, let us in all obedience attend on the ministry of every man, watch at all times, be diligent in every place, and run to every sermon which we can conveniently, because though the Lord touch us not by this man, in this place, at this time, through such a sermon, yet he may touch us by another.” Leaving aside the part where he advises that you “run to every sermon”, isn’t that a plea to pay attention, to always be open to the idea that everything might suddenly change? Not knowing how or when keeps us interested; requires subtler, more numinous skills. We cast ourselves out into mysterious waters; the unknown, where our senses are more alive and our instincts more alert, so that we might unlock a way to make this world as it should be.
When we look at the world around us right now, could there be a more important or empowering message? Facts fail to persuade half so well as mysteries; as the idea of possibilities that WE have to unlock. Everything is not known, destined to unfold in some certain way. There is a moral story being played out, and we have a part in it: there is good and evil; right and wrong; and we have the ability to make the truth prevail if we keep asserting justice. In one of Sherlock Holmes’s cases, the detective stares at a rose, and then says, “There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,… Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
Mysteries and detective stories tell us that things can go right even after it looks like they have gone irrevocably wrong. Tolkein once described mysteries as “Christian fairy tales, with detectives in that are “classic Robin Hood figures, champions of the needy, bringers of merited judgment and merciful salvation.” I suspect adding the word “Christian” before “fairy tales” makes some people feel differently about the value of such stories, which existed long before Western faith traditions. Good and evil have been battling out around the globe for millennia, in no one religion’s name, and in stories we can learn new ways of seeing the world before our eyes. So much of what things look like depends upon where you stand. The quest to restore the world to goodness and justice… well, as Sherlock said, we have much to hope from the flowers.
About ten years ago, an artist named John Newling went to insurers Lloyd’s of London and asked them to underwrite him against ‘loss of mystery’ — to pay out if all mystery was lost from his life. It was a publicity stunt, prompted by Newling’s feeling that life had become too controlled, constantly surveyed and audited, and it advertised a year of what he called “mystery prospecting.” He set up a stall at a street market to collect people’s mysteries, and over three days was entrusted with 281 of them. They ranged from out-of-body experiences to uncanny coincidences, from lost red staplers to mothers who wake from comas to whisper ‘It’s Aspen’ — which turns out to be the crossword solution the whole family is puzzling over a week after her death.
We dwell in a universe we can never fully comprehend; a world filled with hidden connections and mysteries. They are the ultimate trail of breadcrumbs, and we may be plotting our safety even when we are being led into the treacherous forest.
Closing Words — Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be seeking. …. the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.
“Saying Sorry” – Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – February 5, 2017
Opening Words – from Swing Time by Zadie Smith
The brain is connected to the heart and the eyes. – it’s all visualization, all of it!
– Want it, see it, take it. No apologies. I don’t apologize ever for what I want! But I see you – and I see that you spend your life apologizing! It’s like you’ve got survivor’s guilt or something! But we’re not in Bendigo anymore. You’ve left Bendigo, right? Like Baldwin left Harlem. Like Dylan left wherever . . . he was from. Sometimes you gotta get out —
sorry” by Ntozake Shange
one thing i don’t need
is any more apologies
i got sorry greetin me at my front door
you can keep yrs
i don’t know what to do wit em
they dont open doors
or bring the sun back
they dont make me happy
or get a mornin paper
didnt nobody stop usin my tears to wash cars
cuz a sorry
i am simply tired
i didnt know
i was so important toyou
i’m gonna haveta throw some away
i cant get to the clothes in my closet
for alla the sorries
i’m gonna tack a sign to my door
leave a message by the phone
‘if you called
to say yr sorry
i dont use em anymore’
i let sorry/ didnt meanta/ & how cd i know abt that
take a walk down a dark & musty street in brooklyn
i’m gonna do exactly what i want to
& i wont be sorry for none of it
letta sorry soothe yr soul/ i’m gonna soothe mine
you were always inconsistent
doin somethin & then bein sorry
beatin my heart to death
talkin bout you sorry
i will not call
i’m not goin to be nice
i will raise my voice
& scream & holler
& break things & race the engine
& tell all yr secrets bout yrself to yr face
& i will list in detail everyone of my wonderful lovers
& their ways
i will play oliver lake
& i wont be sorry for none of it
i loved you on purpose
i was open on purpose
i still crave vulnerability & close talk
& i’m not even sorry bout you bein sorry
you can carry all the guilt & grime ya wanna
just dont give it to me
i cant use another sorry
you should admit
you’re mean/ low-down/ triflin/ & no count straight out
steada bein sorry alla the time
enjoy bein yrself
Sometimes my work as a minister makes me feel like I am apologizing a lot. And it is often for things that I haven’t done. Some people may feel like they have been left out of a committee discussion, and so I must find a way to make sure their voice has been heard, or at least make them feel better that I have heard them, saying “I am sorry that you feel this committee neglected to listen to your input. I am sorry that person refuses to talk to you because they insist they are right, and have judged you in the wrong for their perceived personal upset.” Other times it seems to be me that has caused the hurt. It can seem like I have blasphemed the great Jehovah. These people may feel their religious sensibilities were ignored. They tell me my Sukkoth service was insensitive to Jewish tradition. My Thanksgiving communion was an insult to a real communion, or conversely was too much like one. So I end up saying, I am sorry that I offended you. As a minister I can offer to listen to their concern and try to take it into account in the future. Sometimes just listening is enough. And sometimes on those most glorious of days, a person may actually apologize to me saying something like “I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time.”
When I was in college, one of my friends had a poster on her wall, which said, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Many of you probably immediately remember this popular phrase from the book, and then movie, “Love Story,” released in my first year of college. At one point the Ryan O’Neil character, Oliver, says he is sorry for expressing anger, and another time says, “I’m sorry” after Ali McGraw’s character dies. Saying you are sorry when you spew anger at someone, and saying sorry when you want to tell a loved one that you feel badly for their loss seem like natural, appropriate expressions of this phrase, but then I hear that silly film cliché that love somehow exempts you from saying sorry. I don’t get it.
Our reading today gives the impression that Ntozake Shange is no longer going to say she is sorry, and moreover, that she never wants to hear those insincere words uttered again from the lips of someone who is not sorry. She represents some people, usually female, who seem to be apologizing all the time. We all know this perspective from people who feel like they are getting in the way, even if they have a perfect right to their spot or their share of the pie. They seem to be sorry that they exist, and that their very existence offends someone, usually a man, because they are occupying space. The lead character in the Zadie Smith novel, Swing Time, is the kind of person who always says she is sorry. She is a personal assistant to the pop star Aimee, from whom we hear: “I see that you spend your life apologizing.” But the pop star doesn’t apologize for what she wants. She seems to go and possess it. We hear the plea not to be sorry that she wants a life, and she should go and take what is her due. No one would argue with those who need to stop apologizing for themselves when they pursue what they want in life. We want to encourage this kind of assertiveness in some people.
But others? Not so much. Richard Nixon once said that apologizing was a sign of weakness. In theory, we may say that is not true, but how often do we express remorse for our failure to do as promised or the anger, self-righteousness or judgments we imparted to others. Why do most of us have a tough time saying we are sorry? We might begin with the most extreme example of anyone who cannot admit they are sorry for what they have done. This is of course, our new President. On the campaign trail he told Jimmy Fallon, “I fully think apologizing’s a great thing, but you have to be wrong.” There you have it. Why would you ever apologize, if you are always right? Trump said that if he ever was wrong, he would apologize “sometime in the hopefully distant future.” He can say the rudest, nastiest, angriest things without fear that he might ever need to apologize because he is right. Therefore, there is nothing to be sorry for. So he can say, she is fat, ugly, stupid, or he is a drug addict, rapist, terrorist. Fortunately, we can all say, whew, glad I don’t suffer from that narcissistic personality disorder, but we could still learn a bit about the need to say I’m sorry.
No one says they are sorry as efficiently as the British. A couple of years ago there was a travel piece in the Boston Globe about London which summarized this. The writer noted that a bus that swiftly passed by, did not curtly note “Out of Service,” but instead said, “Sorry, I’m out of service.” It was personalized into an apology. By English custom, any intrusion, impingement, or imposition of any kind requires an apology. The English say sorry eight times a day on average. Now maybe it is merely a matter of following the rules of etiquette and polite behavior. Their manners reveal a readiness to apologize even for things they have not done. These codes of conduct are a bit different than ours, which are often characterized as rude and offensive.
When they say something that seems to have caused a major offense, the British know an apology is required. One of the most famous apologies occurred after John Lennon, when he was a young Beatle, ungraciously stammered that his rock band was more popular than God. Even this rebel acknowledged that he did not mean to say they were greater than the deity, but that people’s priorities were a bit mixed up in their fervor to lionize the famous musicians. He wrote: “I wasn’t saying whatever they’re saying I was saying. I’m sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing.. . I still don’t know quite what I’ve done. I’ve tried to tell you what I did do but if you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then OK, I’m sorry.”
So we have run the gamut from those who refuse to apologize because they are never wrong or refuse because the apology has been used as a weapon again them to those who seemingly apologize all the time for lack of self-esteem to those who say sorry as part of national custom. Where do you find yourselves on the continuum of saying sorry? If you have ever felt love for another, you immediately notice the absurdity of never saying you are sorry. People in deep relationships say they are sorry quite often. We all do things that bother or hurt others. Just last week I felt mortified when I realized that I had suggested to Susan Flint that we cancel the Safe Congregation meeting because no one was coming. Unfortunately, our eager to learn intern is trying to attend a variety of meetings, and had told me she was coming. Once we cancelled the meeting all the members of the committee knew, but guess who was forgotten? Jolie drove over here from JP, and waited and waited, and finally called me to ask, what gives? I felt so sorry for forgetting, and making her travel and wait around for nothing. We all make mistakes. We forget. We make a mean comment. We ignore others. We make people wait. But if we cannot apologize or can’t bring ourselves to say I’m sorry, then even a minor offense will begin to erode the relationship. We may think he doesn’t care that he made me wait. She didn’t listen to what I asked for, and I feel like I am not important to her. But saying you are sorry acknowledges that you made a mistake and you want to restore goodwill between you.
If you never make a mistake that inconveniences or hurts someone, then you can leave now, because you must be perfect. Otherwise, let’s all think about how we apologize. It is important to feel some measure of contrition. This is often not the case with public apologies. Politicians specialize in the non-apology apology. They may say their behavior was wrong or it represented some kind of personal failure, but they never truly say, I’m sorry. Is there evidence that we feel bad about what we did? This reminds me of what it is like to try to convince a teenager to say they are sorry for making a parent worry that you do not know where they are, or what condition the car is in, let alone the youth. Perhaps you have had some experience with this. We may be on the receiving end of a sarcastic SORRREEEE! that has no element of actual contrition. Sure some people may need an explanation of what they did wrong so that they actually understand the offense. You say this is how what you did made me feel, and perhaps you can produce some measure of recognition. A little light goes off and the youth realizes they have done something wrong.
But it’s hard to apologize. It means we have to measure ourselves by our own failings. We have to process how guilty we feel or how we hurt someone else. The natural inclination may be to protect ourselves, and so we either avoid apologizing, or more frequently for me, I justify my actions or make excuses. I’m getting old and forgot. I wasn’t feeling well, and was under pressure. I was in a hurry. So the apology may become a way to justify your actions. It deflects the hurt you caused away from you, and sometimes you end up blaming the other person. I was only trying to help you, so I am not going to take the responsibility for breaking it. If you had looked both ways, I might never have hit you with my car. How often do we blame our spouse for provoking a reaction in us, for something we did that we should be apologizing or making amends for. Here’s a clue that when you don’t want to say you’re sorry, it is probably the perfect time to do so. You finally realize you did or said something wrong.
There is one caveat here, and that is the person who apologizes all the time to avoid actually confronting an issue. This may be the person who apologizes for existing, as I referred to before, but it may also be an avoidance mechanism, and so if you are doing it all the time to avoid confronting something important, then when you actually do apologize, it becomes meaningless because you may not be able to distinguish between a real and a fake apology. Perhaps a familiar fake apology is the one that is used for a preemptive strike. You apologize before you hurt someone. My most vivid memory of this was when my father was going to spank me. He would say, “this is going to hurt me more than it is you.” Remember that? Today, it may be less violent than the spanking, perhaps a grounding, or some kind of redress by working off your hurtful action.
I think the most common use of the pre-emptive strike occurs in a medical office. I remember once when my son Joel was little, and the nurse was very timid about administering a shot. She seemed to keep endlessly telling him how much it was going to hurt, as she brandished the needle in front of him. Yet she could not bring herself to actually administer the shot. He began to cry louder and louder, and she became more and more timid. Finally, the doctor could not stand the screaming any longer. She entered the room, grabbed the needle and gave my son the shot. The screaming ended immediately. If anything this illustrates the need to take the medicine. Sure we have to acknowledge that it is hard to say you’re sorry, but you need to do it for the hurt you are about to or have caused. Otherwise it lingers and lingers.
Perhaps the most crucial thing about saying sorry is an admission that you actually mean it. Over the years we have had a variety of admissions of wrong doing by the Vatican and Catholic dioceses all over the world, but how many of them have seemed authentic? Is there a sense that they feel they have done something terribly wrong in their failure to protect the children? How many of the victims felt like there was true sorrow about the actions, and that things could ever change? Sometimes one of these public apologies is merely a time to make the guilty party feel better about themselves, and does not change anything about present or future behavior. One such rare instance of public apology that seemed authentic occurred recently in LaGrange, Georgia. More than three quarters of a century ago a young Black man named Austin Callaway was dragged out of a jail cell by a band of masked white men, then shot and left for dead.
The New York Times reported recently that some people never forgot. The fear, the police malfeasance, and the pervasive racism long obscured the investigation of this crime. Then a week ago last Thursday, the police chief, who is white, issued a rare apology for a Southern lynching. “I sincerely regret and denounce the role our Police Department played in Austin’s lynching, both through our action and our inaction,” Chief Dekmar told a crowd at a traditionally African-American church. “And for that, I’m profoundly sorry. It should never have happened.”
He also said that all citizens had the right to expect that their police department “be honest, decent, unbiased and ethical. . . There are relatives here and people who still remember,” he said. “Even if those people are not still alive, down through the generations, that memory is still alive. That’s a burden that officers carry.” Who knows what the future may bring, but at least publicly there was an honest admission of wrong doing, and a resolve to get it right the next time.
One ongoing ritual of any religious organization is how to cleanse yourself of wrong doing. How do you admit that you feel sorry for something you did? How do you atone? How do you move forward? Sorry’ is one of the most powerful words in the English language, provided one can feel and say it at the same time. It’s difficult because you sincerely need to feel the pain of the other person and rise above your ego to say it; it’s powerful because the other person feels understood. You feel shared pain. And when you admit wrong doing and have the courage to say Sorry, it acknowledges the human condition and allows us to move forward, and perhaps have another chance.
Someone once said, “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is saying ‘I love you’ with a wounded heart in one hand and your smothered pride in the other.” It means you care about the other, and are interested in their welfare. Saying sorry is more important than ever in this media age. We all send out emails that express feelings and opinions, but often there is no context to ascertain what the sender means. Tweeting seems even worse, as it presents an opportunity for some at least, to express anger and judgment without any means of remorse.
We all spend a lot of time justifying our actions, when that time could be better spent admitting we are wrong. What to do? Say you were wrong, explain what happened, not as an excuse, but to help understand, not deflect responsibility, have sincere remorse, and finally, think how about you can make amends or move forward. There is tremendous power in listening, and in feeling the pain of another.
Saying you are sorry means focusing on the feelings of the other person more than on your own feelings. Rather than echoing Love Story and never having to say you are sorry, love in a church, in a relationship, in a friendship should mean you should always be ready to say sorry with authenticity, and with humility in instances where you have insulted or hurt or neglected someone. Be ready in love to say I’m sorry, because you long for deeper relationships, caring hearts and compassionate arms. Saying you are sorry restores a frayed community, a shattered relationship, and a wounded friendship.
Closing Words – from Robert R. Walsh (adapted)
When the great plates slip
and the earth shivers and the flaw is seen
to lie in what you trusted most, look not
to more solidity, to weighty slabs
of concrete poured or strength of cantilevered
beam to save the fractured order. Trust
more the tensile strands of love that bend
and stretch to hold you in the web of life
that’s often torn but always healing. . .
The shifting plates, the restive earth,
your room, your precious life, they all proceed
from love, the ground on which we walk together.
Summer in Winter – January 29, 2017
Three Unitarian Universalist Camps and Conference Centers
Introduction by Carole Berney, worship associate
A few words about the subject of this lay service:
I was struck by a sermon Mark gave a few weeks ago—about how some may feel that what draws us here is our church community. But, he stated, our community crucially derives its identity, importance, and sacredness from the UU faith. We all gather here in UU spirit and values—on Sundays in the Worship Service, social hour, or religious education classes; and at other times in Committee meetings, workdays, and special events.
Well, our Worship Committee wanted to let you know, in this lay service, about some other very special UU places –out in the world, not far away–that are worth attending: Ferry Beach, Rowe Camp and Conference Center, and Star Island. So — we’ve invited 3 First Parish UU camp attendees to speak to us briefly about their experiences at each of these camps. We hope they will inspire you to appreciate the special spirit these UU places emanate. Also, we thought it might be refreshingly welcome on one of the last days of January, to imagine yourself in one of these beautiful natural settings in summertime, drinking in the warmth of such UU gathering places.
Introduction to Star Island
Star Island is one of the Isles of Shoals, ten miles off the coast of New Hampshire, a one-hour ferry ride out of Portsmouth. Since 1915 the mission of Star Island has been to maintain a center for religious, educational, and kindred purposes consistent with the principles of the UU Association and the United Church of Christ. For the last 100 years, it has offered an all-inclusive summer camp experience for families and hosted a wide variety of themed conferences on a range of subjects such as natural history, writing, photography, music, painting, ecology, matters of the spirit, yoga and more.
There’s a reason so many artists have been drawn to Star Island over the years. Beyond the aesthetics—the raw wind and sea spray, the pink blossoms of beach roses and the stately weathered architecture—there’s the gift of stepping away from the mainland, enjoying the sunset in a rocking chair on the porch, exploring Gosport Harbor in a kayak, or participating in innovative and wide-ranging programs.
Star Island is my Spiritual Home by Carole Katz
I first visited Star Island on a day trip put together by FPW sometime in the 90s. And when I learned there was a week dedicated to art workshops where I could practice painting watercolors I registered. It’s called the Arts conference. It’s always held on the 3rd week of June. It was 1996 the first time I attended. I didn’t know anyone. About a month before I arrived I received a thick packet containing pages of things I should know and plan for. I studied it closely and packed accordingly. I was paired with another first timer named Beth. She was a single mom too. We hit it off right away and talked late into the night about our lives and our kids. We are still good friends today, 20 years later.
There were several things that make the conference welcoming. Everyone is required to wear a nametag that includes the town and state where they are from. It is a great ice-breaker in the dining room. The island staff, called the Pelicans, also provide an extensive orientation for new comers that includes a tour of the island and the facilities.
That first week I was completely entranced with everything. The nineteenth century hotel called The Oceanic evoked powerful nostalgia though I don’t have a conscious memory of ever being in such a place. I think there is some truth in genetic memories.
The 200 year old stone chapel on the rocks was too perfect. Almost a cliché! Disney couldn’t conceive of anything as perfect. The stone cottages, the ocean vista from where ever you stood, the changing weather that would create dramatic new scenes –It’s all quite magical. Even after attending for the most part of 20 years I am still deeply moved by the setting.
But as wonderful as all of that is, it’s the guest ministers and lay services that have the most affect on me. The Arts conference has had extraordinary ministers as guests over the years: Reverend Maggie Rebman from Burlington Vermont is an amazing story teller. David Morrison can attest to that. I still have a few of her stories printed out to return to when I want to. The Reverend Nancy Crumbine is a poet who has an improvisational spirit to her sermons. Rev. Bill Clark has a fragile heart but doesn’t hold back with sharing his heartfelt emotions with us all. The most recent minister has been Rev. Kate Wilkinson whose wisdom and strength far surpass her years. You can see her sermons by visiting the Provincetown UU website.
The daily chapel services have become the most important reason I return to Star each year. To hear the wonderful ministers the committees invite to join us.
Spending the day among 150 people can be overwhelming to some of us. There’s plenty of opportunity to spend time in small groups or alone, but all the meals are communal and it can all feel a little too much sometimes. Fortunately the end of day ritual soothes the soul. Members of the conference can volunteer to lead a short service at the end of the day in the chapel. Those who want to attend gather on the large hotel porch and, when the chapel bell begins to toll, we each pick up a candle-lit lantern. People are asked to stop talking at that point and walk silently up to the dark chapel where our lanterns get hung on hooks inside to light the chapel. Quietly we sit and await an end of day service that includes beautiful music and some words of love and wisdom. At the end of the service we silently make our way back to the hotel. It’s a tremendous relief to have that quiet time each day. To be among people but quiet. The power of that surprises me every time.
So it would really be enough for me to just go to Star Island each year to hear the services each morning and night. But the Art Conference also provides wonderful workshop leaders in the areas of photography, visual arts, theater, writing and dance. I used to stay in my safe place – painting workshops. But some of my best weeks have been when I stretched myself and tried the writing workshop or dance. In 2015 I took a course on American Haiku. It’s a little less strict than traditional Japanese Haiku. It was the right choice for me that year. It helped me to sit and be quiet and think and write using all of my senses. It made for an especially peaceful week.
I haven’t tried theater yet. But I look forward to trying it one of these years. You don’t have to have any previous experience or skill. The workshop leaders adjust to every level.
There are many other types of conferences throughout the summer. Carol Berney mentioned the natural history conference. There’s also an international affairs conference and several family conferences and more. On Darwin’s 100th birthday year they had a week-long conference all about Darwin.
Thanks to Star Island I’ve made UU friends from throughout New England, New York, DC and beyond.
Finding First Parish first gave me a wonderful place to be on Sunday mornings. It then provided wonderful friends, and a fascinating history. But it also brought Star Island into my life. Unitarian Universalism keeps bringing me gifts. I look forward to experiencing other UU retreat locales in the future.
I have a short video you can view downstairs after the service if you like. -And a book about Star Island’s history.
Introduction to Ferry Beach
First, we’ll be hearing from some of our young members who have attended Ferry Beach: Roane Morton, Seneca Hart, and David Ostfeld.
Ferry Beach is located in Saco, Maine, with beach front and woodlands lying to the south and west of Old Orchard Beach, along the east side of the Saco river and skirting upon Saco Bay. Founded in 1901 by a Universalist minister, Ferry Beach is a retreat community informed by the traditions of Universalism, including camp and revival meetings, and today, by the seven Unitarian Universalist principles.
As a respite away from the everyday world, it is a collection of meeting spaces, wide porches, an art and pottery studio, an outdoor chapel, a performance space, and a wonderful dining hall. It is a place of renewal and rejuvenation for families, couples, and individuals.
Roane Morton – Ferry Beach – coming soon
Introduction to Rowe Camp and Conference Center
Rowe Camp is a Unitarian-Universalist Center, a spiritual and educational organization folded into the slope of the gentle Berkshire Mountains at the edge of an old New England village. The Rowe campus offers such features as forested land and trails, an old millpond and waterfall, a labyrinth, a meditation hut and a sauna.
Rowe’s summer camps have inspired and delighted kids since 1924. Adult camps have developed over several decades into self-sustaining communities ready to welcome new members, and year round conferences with interesting facilitators offer alternative topics with a focus on self-discovery.
Rowe’s stated purpose, consistent with UU principles and values, is to provide opportunities, in a safe and supportive environment, for people to explore diverse, far-reaching subjects in order to learn about themselves, each other, other cultures and the earth, and go forth with new knowledge, insight, and courage.
Rachel Benson Monroe – Rowe Camp and Conference Center
My Experience at Rowe Camp
By Rachel Benson Monroe
At age 13, for reasons that are still unbeknownst to me (but I have ideas…) my parents told me they wanted me to attend Rowe Camp in Rowe, Massachusetts. I was pretty against the idea- summer was an ideal time to cement middle school friendships- plus I actually, despite how I may have acted, LIKED my parents and sister, and didn’t want to leave for 3 weeks. I made my parents promise that if I called and asked, they would come pick me up. Let’s just say that after arriving at Rowe, that call was never to come, and it would become my spiritual summer home for the next 10 years.
I have attended Rowe camps and worked on staff for the middle school and high school aged camps. I have served as Youth Ambassador to the Board, am a regular donor, and recently attended a conference.
At Rowe we describe something called the Rowe Spirit. For me, it is a love and appreciation for the magical quality generated when a group of people join together to learn, grow, play, love, feel, be in an environment of trust, kindness, respect, and safety. When a person, especially a young person, is in a place they know they are safe and supported, welcomed and trusted, they can be the best, kindest, most energized, most vital version of themselves. That phenomenon is Rowe Camp.
The majority of my experiences at Rowe were at Junior High Camp, designed for ages 13-15, a three-week long retreat for adolescents focusing on personal and spiritual growth, identity exploration, socio-emotional bonding, appropriate boundary setting, freedom of expression, and fun. We lived in rustic cabins, showered outdoors, and spent 3 blissful weeks away from screens of all kinds, phones, and parents.
At Rowe we were presented and asked to commit to community guidelines, emphasizing respect for ourselves, each other, the space, and the environment. Being entrusted with these guidelines and having their meaning instilled in us created a sense of ownership and responsibility for our actions within the community. Our decisions to act responsibly came from an internal locus of respect and ethics, as opposed to externally imposed rules.
Consent was highlighted- as teenagers we were treated as unique individuals with autonomy over our bodies and our decisions. We were given, with permission from our parents, frank, compassionate, developmentally appropriate information about sex, consent, and relationships. This is a refreshing and much needed element excluded from most education systems and was formational in creating in me a vital sense of respect and authority over my own body.
Campers are called by the names they choose and pronouns they prefer. There has been an increased emphasis on building diversity at Rowe in the last 10 years, so children from all backgrounds can experience the magic. At Rowe you can actually be who you want to be- and try on any number of identities to see what sticks, knowing you will be loved and appreciated.
Programming is totally diverse and aimed at cultivating creativity, weirdness, freedom of expression, and fun. There is an effort to include and create opportunities for all kids. Kids who may not “fit in” in mainstream culture are celebrated at Rowe. There is no dress code, shoes are optional (except in the kitchen, where required weekly chores build a sense of ownership and responsibility for the functioning of the space), weirdness is gladly embraced. There are games, sports, and activities for kids who need to run around- there are quiet spaces, art materials, hikes, and small group outings for kids who are more introverted.
Friday night dances are raucous, barefoot, and community based. There are no dates, no attire that is expected, and most importantly there is no type of dancing that doesn’t fit.
Nightly, we would meet at dusk and walk in silence down to a centuries-old one room chapel, stopping on the short walk to sit and reflect at the mill pond, where a chorus of bullfrogs greeted us. We would share our experiences in the chapel Quaker style, always beginning and ending with certain rituals meant to soothe and ground everyone in the room. This experience of chapel was positively transformative for me and I felt connected not only to myself and my friends but to something deeper and greater, something “magical”.
Food is plentiful, made fresh daily, mostly vegetarian, and absolutely delicious. Family style meals are fun, chaotic and community building. The background of the lush forest, mountains, and starry night sky are a welcome respite from the confines of school, cell phones and cities that many kids experience.
For me, Rowe was a place where I was respected and appreciated for the unique individual that I am. I was given space to grow, learn, make mistakes, and form bonds that defied the typical and prescribed social norms of mainstream adolescent culture. living together for 3 weeks each summer and engaging in bonding rituals and foundational experiences during transformative and identity building times of life left me with friendships that endure the test of time. At my wedding two years ago, 3 friends from Rowe were by my side, having known each of them for more than 15 years.
I am thankful for the First Parish community for instilling in me the foundational beliefs that grew at Rowe. I am thankful to Rowe for offering me a sacred and safe space to evolve. I am thankful to my parents for having the foresight to send me to this magical retreat, and for recognizing it’s importance to me and allowing me to return, and I am thankful for the opportunity to share my experience with all of you today.