“Built in Our Image” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – January 17, 2016
Call to Worship – “i am a little church” by e.e. cummings (adapted)
i am a little church(no great cathedral) – i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,
i am not sorry when sun and rain make april
my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
my prayers are prayers of earth’s own clumsily striving (finding and losing and laughing and crying)children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness
around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope, and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains
i am a little church(far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature – i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing
winter by spring, i lift my diminutive spire to
the merciful One Whose only now is forever:
standing erect in the deathless truth of the holy presence (welcoming humbly the light and proudly the darkness).
Reading – from The Most Beautiful House in the World by Witold Rybczynski
Sermon – “Built in Our Image”
I have visited a lot of churches. Years ago when we stayed in England Andrea accused me of taking the family to every cathedral and castle on the island, or maybe it was just the castles. In any case, she was tired of all of the visits to historic monoliths with three bored boys in tow. Imagine! Juxtapose boredom with the macabre when we stood on the plaque commemorating the Murder in the Cathedral of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. Our boys helped us decide quickly that it was time for some fresh air, as we dashed from the scene. I thought of church visits because I recently made up a list of all the churches where I have preached. What precipitated this current obsession was the occasion of my visit to Montpelier, Vermont two weeks from now. I have never preached in Vermont before and this will complete the New England states for me. I have visited larger religious shrines, too, including Lincoln Cathedral in England, which plays a prominent role in the reading from the book, The Most Beautiful House in the World. One could play the game of what is the most beautiful church in the world, but I am sure we would have different ideas of what kind of aesthetic appeal, personal identification, architectural preference or physical location moved us to make the choice of a particular church. One of my favorites is Underbank Chapel, a modest little stone building outside of Sheffield, England which I love not because of its grandeur or beauty, although its location above a valley lined with rectangular stone walls, countless sheep, and the greenest grass in the world helps, but because long ago a small congregation sang a beautiful introit that spoke of a God that gave them safe shelter from the storms of life in this humble dwelling, and they consequently made a visiting American feel welcomed on a dark cold night in January 1978.
My list also includes the buildings where I have served as minister: Milton, Palmer and Watertown, Massachusetts. I often say I have been lucky to serve in three lovely buildings – one a classic New England meetinghouse on the green, built in 1787, one a stone Gothic building from 1879 with stained glass and lots of dark wood, and this structure built in 1889 as a parish hall where the congregation could hold dances, plays and Sunday school classes, while the congregation worshipped next door. Later this became our meetinghouse, a beautiful, yet humble dwelling more like the church as home concept that became popular in the mid-West during the late 1800’s, where church was domesticated into a seven day a week social center that not only held worship services on Sunday, but had classes, and every kind of social service imaginable to make family and social life more meaningful and fulfilling. I recall, too the first Unitarian church I attended in Petersham, Massachusetts, a country town with its Greek Revival building reminding the viewer of the ancient Greek temples with its granite columns that strain to hold up the entire structure. Those columns standing straight like soldiers with their circular grooves that resemble the tunic the ancient Greek senators wore as they sat in democratic deliberation for the first time, reflecting its horizontal appearance.
There are so many kinds of buildings that Unitarian Universalist congregations worship in from the lovely, yet radically different structures I have described that are particularly dear to my heart, and countless others from Gothic monstrosities that seat 700 and are dark and dreary to modern barn like structures that resemble a Pizza Hut with no architectural distinctiveness. Yet every congregation makes their building their own. Love it or hate it, it becomes the cradle of the dreams for that group and the warmth of the community, the spirit of their worship, and the commitment to work for justice in the world shines forth and is made manifest with each member striving to live an ethical compassionate life, as best as they know how. But make no mistake about it, those congregations despite the wide variety of buildings they call their religious homes, reflect what the people believe about the role religion plays in their lives, and in their vision for remaking the world. For us, this vision begins with the Puritans whom we commonly identify as witch hanging monsters, but were the progenitors of much of what we believe and enact in our worship spaces and services.
The most enduring example of this occurs with the only extant Puritan meetinghouse in America, the Old Ship Church in Hingham, MA. The exterior of this Puritan meetinghouse, like many, was a square structure with a four-sided hip roof rising to a central cupola. What especially interests me though are the interiors of Puritan meetinghouses where the pulpit was on a side wall with benches and later box pews gathered all around it, sort of like the center of town with each family dwelling near by. The Puritan meetinghouse succeeded an Anglican Church pattern of architecture, which was mostly a continuation of a Roman Catholic arrangement. There the altar is the focal point of the church situated at the front, with a pulpit off to the side, while the baptismal font is near the door, to symbolize the entry into the Christian faith. There is also lots of symbolic statuary and stained glass and painting to represent God, Jesus and Mary, all of which the Puritans considered idolatry. So do we. America was the one place where Puritans were able to create meetinghouses that reflected their views of how society should be structured. Being among the most purely Protestant, the pulpit was the focal point of the building, for it was from here that the preacher delivered the word of God, as interpreted through the Bible. The minister was called up from the people, and not separated from them in any way, like a priest with an apostolic emblem. There was no altar, but for practical reasons a communion table and a bowl for baptism sat below the pulpit. Worship was pure, and the only accoutrements were purely functional items like the tankards we bring out of the museum at Thanksgiving.
Perhaps the most significant thing about the Puritan meetinghouse, is that it was precisely that – a meetinghouse. It was not a church, but instead a purely functional building where worship services happened to occur, but also town meetings and public gatherings as well. Of course in Puritans times there was no dissent from their congregational forms and faith, and so the building was intended for the entire town. It was their town hall, where disputes were settled, minister’s salaries were apportioned from all taxpayers, and although the rich were seated nearest to the pulpit (a place some might wish to avoid), all the community was seated together in one common arrangement that invited participation from the floor. It was not democracy unless you were a male landowner, but nevertheless, each congregation rejected hierarchy and being told how to worship. Instead they created their own covenant, elected their own ministers and officers, and voted on the rules that would govern them and who would be considered members. They came to America seeking religious freedom, and while they were not so great at granting this freedom to others, they did replicate that freedom for themselves. Each congregation, religiously speaking, stood on it own, and while it consulted with others for advice, it maintained an independence, so even when Watertown Puritan Richard Brown said that the Catholic faith was a legitimate faith, he could not be excommunicated from membership even though the leaders in Boston recommended that course of action. The Watertown congregation has a long history of refusing to be told what to do. It is probably prudent that I say no more than that.
What made this expression of faith possible in both architecture and polity was an unspoken agreement about theology, and so they were able to focus on the structure of their faith arrangements in a polity or government that drew on a New Testament understanding that God intended small cells of believers to be religious authorities unto themselves. They could know a direct experience of God because the spirit dwelt in their hearts as a community of believers, and was not disseminated through a hierarchy of authorities. This resulted in their meetinghouses and their services being a reflection of this independence from authority. There was no stained glass to prevent them from seeing the real living world through the windows of their buildings, and God was to be experienced directly in life without mediator or veil. This is why this building of ours reminds me of a Puritan meetinghouse. While the pulpit may be the center of worship for the dissemination of the word, the people are gathered around reflecting congregational participation and empowerment. It is pure religion from the heart that must be lived directly through the faith of each person finding his or her own centers of religious power and meaning.
The moveable pulpit and chairs are certainly more flexible than any Puritan would have wanted them to be, but it is remarkable to me how many vestiges of their expressions of faith remain even if the content has been dissipated. This means that we have both continuity with the past in terms of simplicity of faith and functional needs, but that theology has become largely superfluous. When Emerson said the sun shines also today, he provided religious permission to obliterate the past dependence upon Christian miracles and traditions, and devote ourselves to speaking directly to the power of the spirit as we could discern it through our own hearts. Eventually most Unitarian and Universalist congregations would embrace this approach which was the ultimate affirmation of Luther’s priesthood of all believers, and became a faith of all believers no matter which traditions you preferred, as long as you loved God, and thy neighbor as thyself, and even God eventually stood on quicksand.
I have suggested that Puritan meetinghouses were a reflection of their ideas, and that much of that ethos remains present in our faith today. We could each ask the same question of our own homes. Are they a reflection of us, and our deepest values? Do the furnishings embrace our bodies to comfort and cradle? Is it warm and inviting to everyone? What kinds of art or decorations hang on the walls? Do lots of books reflect our values about knowledge and learning? Does a well furnished kitchen show how you value cooking, or a beautiful dining room reflect how much you love to welcome guests to your home? We like a couch in our kitchen where we can be near the symbolic hearth of our home, and relax together. We say it is just like a café, and we serve up omelets and bagels, wine and cheese and everything in between. The art we hang usually has some kind of personal significance – houses that Andrea loves, or places we love like a map of Rockland, Maine, and textures and textiles, too, like weavings and paper art. I like to gaze upon them all. Do we look on our surroundings and see? And what makes for beauty in a dwelling place? Is it lots of memorabilia and photos that we love, or is it simplicity with few baubles and trinkets, and mostly those that serve a functional purpose? I am reminded of that lovely Marge Piercy reading in our hymnal (#567) To Be of Use. She speaks of Hopi vases that we collect and put in museums, but what is enduring about them is how they were used by a people to hold corn. They were a reflection of a culture and its work and family and love, and not museum pieces that hold monetary value. Were they well loved by use?
How do we make a house beautiful? William Channing Gannett, a leading Unitarian minister in the late 19th century wrote about creating The House Beautiful, working in collaboration with the famous architect Frank Floyd Wright. The term spawned a magazine, but it also reflected what both Gannett and Wright wanted to express religiously. Gannett said he wanted the home to be a domestication of the infinite. Gannett begins by referring to a spiritual home, by which St. Paul meant a place where our souls can dwell forever. Gannett was less concerned with the afterlife, but with our homes here on earth. Here we can create dwellings that house the infinite as reflections of eternal values. We are creating the house beautiful with our love and care for one another. In the ideal house, the family protects the person, and the strife of the world is shut out, while love is held in. We nurture the body and shelter the spirit. Does the house reflect an inner beauty? Do we see that in the design or symmetry found in the rooms? Are we filled with gratitude that we have such a dwelling to call our own? Gannett wants us to consider when we look in mute witness to our dwelling to remember “we live in a building of God, a house not made with hands.”
This leads us to Gannett’s partner in the concept of The House Beautiful, Frank Lloyd Wright. All houses whether they be homes for living or worshipping are made with hands. While literally true, it is also true that all buildings, at least in Wright’s view can reflect some deeper religious unity present and alive in the universe. Wright was part of a large Unitarian family who had migrated to America from Wales. Suspicious of any institutional religion that got in the way of an individual’s search for truth, they developed their own family motto, “Truth Against the World.” As a person, Wright was egotistical and narcissistic, so we might suspect that his truth was not to be challenged by established authorities, religious or architectural. We all know that respecting authority is not a Unitarian strength. Trusting the self over the institution or tradition dates back centuries, but its foundation in Unitarianism comes with Emerson. This is a profound trust for the individual, and the democratic voice of the people over traditions. The Puritans obliterated Anglicanism, and the Transcendentalists were accused of destroying Christianity.
Wright created two famous Unitarian churches, one of which, Unity Temple, adorns the cover of the book Andrea and I wrote about Unitarian Universalism. Two summers ago we went to visit what is perhaps his most famous house Fallingwater, near Pittsburgh. There is a great beauty to this building, but Wright’s buildings often have structural problems, so water literally falls through Fallingwater. We may think a great architect shouldn’t design a work that leaks. While that seems logical, it is also true that Wright was less concerned with tight buildings than he was with serving a larger religious ideal with his architecture. For him it is not the building that needs to survive, but the ideal. Some see his architecture as a celebration of nature, reflecting the prairie, as they similarly see Emerson or Thoreau’s idea of nature as intrinsically beautiful. But that simply is not true in either case. A tree is not beautiful because it is a tree; it is beautiful because it ia connected to a greater whole, a larger spiritual unity present in the creation.
Wright’s uncle Jenkin Lloyd Jones had worked closely with Gannett and a group of women clergy known as the Iowa Sisterhood in the “church as home” movement. They rejected the large, grandiose buildings that seemed authoritarian to them, believing that a simple home like structure reflected their liberal religious faith. They wanted their building to reflect the non traditional, democratic, freedom loving, individual search for truth that they longed to see embodied in their lives. When Wright was designing Unity Temple, he opposed the idea of a conventional spire pointing towards heaven because it represented an aspiration to heavenly salvation. He said, you don’t build or design that way because it does not reflect liberal religion. He then told the building committee a story. There was a holy man, who longed to see God, and he climbed up to the top of the highest mountain, and when he reached the highest point, he called out to God. Then he heard a voice call out, “Get down. Go back.” This was not God’s way of saying, there is nobody home. Instead, the holy man then realized that God was not at the top, but that he would find God down in the valley where the people were; there he could look upon God’s living countenance. We must build temples he said that are not in the sky, and are not filled with sentiment, but with sense. The new church was to be a modern meetinghouse, and a “good-time place.”
The committee was stymied, because they only knew what a church was supposed to look like. So they asked Wright, who can design such a place as you describe? And, of course Wright said, I can. Wright was using the words of his uncle Jenk; words that once begun a sermon of his, “ Go back to the plains and tell the dwellers on the plains that the Temple of True Knowledge is in their midst; any one may enter it who chooses; the gates are not even closed.” In the heart of our life and work and daily effort is the ideal church. The theology had come a long way from Puritanism, but the ideal was still the same. Make a building that reflects the every day faith you live, in the plain, with the people. The great building is not necessarily the grand, enduring cathedral, it may be found with what you don’t see, and it may not last, but what’s important is whether it is continually being built with the spirit of the people on the plain.
Closing Words – from Kathleen McTigue
Into this home we bring our hunger for awakening,
We bring compassionate hearts,
And a will toward justice.
Into this house we bring the courage to walk on,
After hard losses.
Into this house we bring our joy, and gratitude for ordinary blessings.
By our gathering we bless this place.
In its shelter we know ourselves blessed.
The Shame Spiral
January 10, 2016
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words ―from Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions
My friend reminded me about the five rules of the world as arrived at by a theologian. First rule, you must not have anything wrong or different about you. If you do, you must get over it as soon as possible. If you can’t, you must pretend that you have. If you can’t even pretend that you have, you shouldn’t show up. You should stay home, because it’s hard for everyone else to have you around. And the fifth rule is that if you are going to insist on showing up, you should at least have the decency to feel ashamed.
So I decided that the most subversive, revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be ashamed.”
Reading adapted from Family Life, by Akhil Sharma
This novel is about a family that has emigrated from India to New York City, and the narrator’s older brother, a star high school student, has had a swimming accident and is in a vegetative state. Their mother has become unpredictable.
In the mornings I prayed, and at night, when I was supposed to be sleeping but couldn’t, I spoke with God. One rainy night, the room was gray with light from the street and my mother was lying nearby, her breath whistling. I was on my strip of foam and I asked God whether he minded being prayed to only in need.
“You think of your toe only when you stub it.”
“Still, it’s better to pray just to pray.”
“It’s human nature. I don’t mind it.”
God looked like Clark Kent. He was wearing a gray cardigan and slacks. He sat cross-legged at the foot of the mat. Originally, right after the accident when I had first started talking to him, God looked like Krishna. But it had felt foolish to discuss brain damage with someone who was blue and was holding a flute and had a peacock feather in his hair.
“You’re not angry with me for touching the tree?”
“No, I’m flexible.”
There was as large oak tree on the way to school. It stood half on the sidewalk and half off. Because the tree looked very old, I thought it might know God from when there were fewer things in the world. Usually as I passed it, I would touch the tree and bring my hand to my forehead the way I did when I had touched my grandfather’s feet.“I respect you. The tree is just a way of showing respect to my elders.”
God laughed. “I am not too caught up in formalities.”
I became quiet. I was convinced that I had been marked as special by Birju’s accident. To me it appeared obvious that the beginnings of all heroes contained misfortune. Both Krishna and Superman had been separated from their parents at birth. Batman, too, had been orphaned. Ram had to spend fourteen years in the forest… “I want Birju’s accident to lead to something.” Saying this felt noble.
“He won’t be forgotten.”
“I can’t just be famous though. I need money too. I need to take care of Mommy and Daddy.”
“First you grab the finger, then you grab the wrist.”
“I am just being practical.”
“Don’t worry. You can hardly imagine the life ahead.”
This last statement made me happy.
“Are things getting worse?” God was silent.“I am ashamed.”
“After the accident, I was glad I might become an only child.”
“Everybody thinks strange thoughts. It doesn’t matter if you think something.”
“Why don’t you make Birju like he was?”
As soon as I asked that question, God stopped feeling real. I knew then that I was alone, lying under my blanket, my face exposed to the dark…. The idea of a future in which Birju was still sick made fame seem pointless….. God and I were silent for a while.
And I knew, things were getting worse.
Long ago, on a rocky hill outside the city of Athens, in a temple built for Athena, there was a loyal priestess. She happened to be beautiful, with hair that curled past her shoulders and skin that was soft and warm, but what really defined her was the choice she made to serve Athena. She was truly devoted to the Goddess of wisdom, and willingly took on the obligations. The priestesses were expected to commit themselves to expanding their own minds, spiritually and intellectually. They had to remain chaste, and could never marry, and if they went forth into the world, it was as if the Temple of Athena had moved with them. To approach a priestess required reverence; it was like entering the temple, and could not be done without respect, and honor.
Yet one day Poseidon, the god of the sea, arrived at the temple, saw this faithful priestess, and took her as his own. Because of this desecration, the priestess was cursed. Each curl on her head was transformed into a venomous snake; her beautiful skin became scaly and tinged with green, and her eyes bulged out and turned blood red, filling anyone who saw them with disgust and fear. And the fear was appropriate, because if your eyes met hers, you would turn instantly to stone. She was cast out, sent to a remote island, where nothing ever grows. Shamed, she was removed from the world.
I have never heard the story of Medusa told as anything but one of punishment. The priestess broke her vow; infuriated Athena, and this was the result – even though there is some acknowledgement that the girl had no choice; was in fact assaulted by a god. Because of her, the temple was defiled, and so she was transformed into a death-giving monster. Sometimes the story changes a little bit, and the rape is removed, and Medusa is described as bragging about her beauty; but either way, the punishment is because of her looks: Her appearance was pleasing and tempted Poseidon, so she is cursed. Medusa didn’t actually do anything, but the shame of a culture that allows innocent people to be hurt has been transferred to her.
One hundred years ago, a French navy ship called The Medusa went down off the coast of West Africa. Built during the Napoleonic wars, and instrumental in briefly regaining Mauritius, the Medusa disrupted British trade routes, and then ferried French officials back and forth to Senegal, where they ruled over the natives. But the captain was inept, and ran the ship aground – a complete loss of the five year old vessel. The few lifeboats were nowhere near enough for the 400 people on board, so broken pieces of lumber were hastily assembled into a raft, and attached by a tow rope to one of the small launches that accompanied big ships. After placing 146 men and one woman on the makeshift float, the royal officers severed the rope, so they could sail on unimpeded. During thirteen days of drifting, dozens of people were washed into the water. Some of the weak and injured were tossed overboard when supplies ran low; others who rebelled had been killed and eaten. No one ever searched for these people, and at the time of their somewhat accidental rescue, there were fifteen survivors clinging to the boards. Five of them did not live long after being pulled from the water.
A painter who had his own reasons for being drawn to shameful and tragic scenes became friendly with three of the ten men who survived – an engineer, a carpenter, and a surgeon. Their experience of being abandoned at sea gave an emotional depth to the tale, and their professions gave incredible accuracy in multiple dimensions. In a studio across the street from a hospital, they helped the painter reconstruct everything — they built a detailed scale model of the raft, obtained body parts and severed heads from the morgue so he could study their decay, brought him to visit patients so he could sketch dying faces. The painting, called The Raft of the Medusa, is huge, — slightly larger than 16 by 24 feet — and the boards that were so low in the water are also low in the frame. The viewer is drawn uncomfortably into the scene. Some critics were repulsed by the painting and did not think it was art, and disparaged the painter. But many who saw it understood that it was a picture of the truth, and what was repulsive was the behavior of leaders who installed an incompetent political appointee as captain, and who were participating in the slave trade despite popular sentiment against it, and who never did more than save themselves.
When I picked this topic, I had no idea that on Wednesday I would read about bodies washing ashore in resort towns on islands off the Greek coast, or that on Thursday we would crash awake from the dream of a border-free Europe as sexual assaults in Germany were being used as a reason to ban immigrants. It all made me think about Medusa on her island, and the shipwrecked Medusa. Last summer, an art critic contrasted this painting and its call for compassion and human decency with today’s refugee crisis. In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones wrote that in 1819 the public was able to imagine life for those people, and they were outraged and heartbroken. Now, we know the facts but we refuse to be moved by them; that we can’t stand to think about these people; are afraid of being less comfortable, and so we have become cynical, and calculating. This is our shame, says Jones: We do not feel with others. Or, in my case and most likely in yours, we do feel. But we don’t know what to do.
After the shootings in San Bernadino last month, there was a fair amount of ridicule directed at the idea of responding to gun violence with prayer. There was enough of this chatter that it got a name – “prayer shaming,” because the assumption is that praying means you aren’t doing anything – that instead of changing the laws or somehow making this trouble go away, you are just saying something that doesn’t matter – not even to you. Besides the kind of bitter sarcasm this reveals, the deeper problem is that it proves how distrustful and divided we are. We still don’t talk about how we got to this point, or why our country and our world is so violent; and we still don’t contemplate change. Instead we shift to talking about the meaning, or lack of meaning, in prayer. Pretending to be about action, it is actually a way of shunning anyone who holds the “wrong” opinion. The idea of prayer shaming ends up proving our inability to act together; to support the most basic human aspect of our common life, which is caring about each other, whether we can do anything or not.
It is painful to confront the idea of not being able to do anything. I wonder sometimes if this is a fundamental part of shame. So often it seems that the lesson imparted is about what was deserved, or explaining why we ended up in a position of pain and suffering. This individualizes shame, and makes it personal, but shame is an inherently social phenomenon. You can’t really feel humiliated or disgraced without some kind of audience, even if it is just an internalized one – the ghosts of people you have let down, disappointed, failed; or a cultural standard you have just never been able to meet. Even though we make shame about personal failure, there is something about this feeling that is tied up in our desire to save one another; and the terrific pain that comes of knowing we cannot. We are not in control. It can make us hide from each other and from ourselves, simultaneously feeling powerless and as if we misused the power we do have. It can make us disparage others, to make them feel as badly as we do; and it can make us look for ways people are to blame for their own fate; ways they are complicit in their own suffering, rather than face caring that doesn’t change the facts, or turn back the clock.
Shame is actually the first emotion recorded in the Bible – after Eve eats the apple and offers it to Adam, they immediately realize that they are naked, and so begin covering up, and hiding from God. They also immediately start looking for others to blame – Adam points the finger at Eve, she says the snake told her to do it, and for centuries we have inherited a lot of warped ideas about women and men because of it. But what if that misses the point – that shame is part of who we are, and not about what we have done? It is not about whether we deserve to feel bad or not; we just DO. It is a part of our existence, and it is rooted in the fact that we try to avoid suffering, and that we are not always in command. We are curious, tempted, unthinking…. Part of feeling shame is a result of trying to dodge the fact that we are vulnerable. It is easier to escape with drinking or drugs or runners high or tv or busy-ness; or to be angry – than it is to admit that terrible things happen and we have to learn to live despite that. We have to learn how to bear the fact that we live in a world with rules we did not make and do not even fully understand.
Maybe this is what Medusa’s story captures. So often the shame that gets passed on is the easier one; the one that lets us re-victimize an innocent person, and makes her complicit in something she had no power over. If we tell the story of a woman whose beauty made her vulnerable, we can sidestep the fact that physically, she WAS vulnerable. We all are. In the reading this morning, the narrator talks of his older brother, who had always been treated as the family’s savior, hitting his head on the bottom of a swimming pool, and we realize it isn’t just Birju that is lost. Everyone is. Ajay tries different possibilities – he will be an only child, or he will become a super hero, or he will get God to undo this mess, give him his mother and father back. He is ashamed of himself, and of his parents, but when he finally confronts that, acknowledging that things really are fractured and cannot be put back together the way they once were, we know that the real shame is not because of anything anyone did or didn’t do. It is that this tragedy happened, and he was powerless. All he can do is empty himself of the anger and frustration, so that he can keep caring; touching his hand to an old gnarly tree that was around when the world was much younger and simpler.
I loved that Ajay talks of God as Krishna and as Clark Kent; as Batman and Ram. But it made me think again about Medusa. For some reason, I was surprised that a ship was named for her. It made me think about what she stood for. It couldn’t just be the shame and banishment; the transformation from temptress to ugly and fearful – all the things that we commonly hear. No one would name a ship for that. And of course, alongside the story of how the priestess came to be the horrid Gorgon, we have also known Medusa as a figure of power. Her head is emblazoned on Athena’s shield. If Athena was punishing Medusa, why would she keep her face on her shield, as if she were still a guardian of her temple? This may be a story about shame, but it is not necessarily Medusa’s shame. It is much larger than that.
Athena put Medusa on an island. Obviously, the only way to get to an island is through the water; the element controlled by Poseidon. And Poseidon, obsessed with this woman, kept allowing ships safe passage. He was making it easy for men to get near Medusa, and they had come to look at her as if she were a prize to capture. But Poseidon was inadvertently leading these men to their doom. All around the island, the sea was filled with treacherous demi-gods – the offspring of the child Poseidon had given Medusa. These creatures constantly thwarted his mission. They would make the ships crash, go off course, or come upon Medusa face to face, so the men were literally stopped in their tracks, turned to stone. In fact, Medusa had a rock garden built entirely of the sailors who had tried to reach her.
At first glance, it looks like Medusa really was cast out, disgraced, no longer able to serve the goddess of wisdom; that a system of power was maintained. But being sent to that desolate island actually protected her from a society that had no room for her, that would have targeted her, harassed her, and left her homeless. And from her island, Medusa upended everything. Instead of being paralyzed by shame, she literally petrified those who did not respect her, and yet they could not stop trying to reach her. Without ever even confronting Poseidon, that god was constrained, and all the men who moved in his world were under Medusa’s power. She silently pointed out a collective degradation. Even when Medusa does eventually die, it is to help free a woman from that culture. Perseus brings back Medusa’s head to save his mother from being forced into a marriage she does not want. And from Medusa’s blood, the winged horse Pegasus was born, taking flight to the heavens. Maybe this is a story about the other side of shame, which to be free; to serve wisdom and truth.
Even when everything has been taken away, even when people cannot look at us straight, we are not powerless. We can still be ourselves, we can still help and care, and we can still challenge injustice. Things that happen cannot be undone, we end up in places that are harsh and inhospitable — but that doesn’t mean we are at fault. It just means we are alive in a complicated world. The shame is to pretend otherwise.
Closing Words From Henry IV, part 1, by William Shakespeare
Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?
Glendower: Well, my cousin, I can teach you to command the devil.
Hotspur: And I can teach you, my cousin, to shame the devil – by telling the truth! Tell the truth and shame the devil, as the old saying goes. If you do have the power to call up the devil, then bring him here, and I will swear that I have the power to shame him into leaving. Oh, for goodness sake, while you live, tell the truth and shame the devil!
“Judgment Day” by Mark W. Harris
January 3, 2016 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Kalidasa
Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of achievement
Are but experiences of time.
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn!
“Ithaka” by C.P. Cavafy
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
I grew up in a church that recited the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday, glued in the front of our hymnal for easy access. I remember struggling with most of the theology, which seemed totally irrational to me, even as a ten year old. My scientifically oriented mind was already inclining me towards Unitarian Universalism. What especially intrigued me was when we got to the Jesus part where, in quick succession, he “rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sat at the right hand of God.” How did he ever do that? And was there a big throne in the sky? It was from that right hand perch that the creed says, “he will come to judge the quick and the dead.” The quick? Now this was the best part for an aspiring athlete because it seemed like if I was fast enough I would be judged acceptable in Jesus’ sight. Fast or quick was good. I had to keep on running. Of course I soon learned that this kind of quick had nothing to do with being acceptable in God’s sight. Then I forgot about this term for years until Andrea and I were attending prenatal classes prior to Levi’s birth. My ears perked up when I heard the term, “quickening,” which is that moment in pregnancy when fetal movements are first felt. Quick means alive, and for the living as well as the dead, my childhood religion required me to give an accounting of my life to Jesus.
The idea of standing before Jesus to account for ourselves, and whether or not we have been righteous in our behavior probably seems absurd to most of us today. This personal judgment day plays little or no role in our theology because it is either this final test of personal aptitude for heaven, or more commonly the final judgment of God on all humankind at the end of the world, leading to the event popularly known as the Rapture. It is sometimes said that Jesus’ followers believed the end was about to occur, and that after his death, he would come again in the Parousia or second coming. So many possibilities for judgment, but they all focused on time. When will it occur? How much longer do we have? Many of Jesus’ followers thought his return was imminent, but when he failed to materialize, they realized they had much more time available. This is so true of us, too. We have more time available than we think we do, but we have all convinced ourselves that we have no time, and we make every day judgment day.
New Year’s seems like the ideal service to ponder our relationship to time. While the media always looks back on the previous year to review the best movies, music and books of the year, they also look forward wondering what will happen in the year ahead. Predicting the future is an age-old obsession of people. What will happen to me in the days to come? What will happen to the planet? For centuries writers have tried to create visions of utopian or futuristic societies, and more recently filmmakers have, too. In 1888 Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward, which predicted the advent of television, credit cards and pedestrian malls, and even in our lifetimes the movie “Back to the Future” gave us one of this year’s popular Christmas gifts, the hover board, which unfortunately seems to be self igniting at a store near you. The perfected future has not yet arrived. In 1928, John Maynard Keynes published an essay about economic possibilities for grandchildren. He predicted that those of us working now would work for about three hours each day, and even that would be more labor than was necessary. What happened to that?
There were certain things that seemed true to Keynes that have come true. His lifetime had seen an incredible number of technological advances, and he predicted those would continue to happen. True. He also predicted that the global economy would grow by certain factors, and that is true as well. Finally, he predicted that everyone would be able to enjoy the economic abundance with endless amounts of leisure time. Not true. In fact, when was the last time you were bored because you had so little to do? None of us has any time. We are overworked. Our children are overscheduled. Churches in America have declined partly because everyone works all the time, and so there is no volunteer time and kids are playing their sports on Sunday. We have to do our shopping on Sunday, too, because it is the only day we have off, and we are stressed out the rest of the week. Why are we so busy? An article called “No Time” by Elizabeth Kolbert appeared in the New Yorker last year suggesting some reasons. The first theory is that we compete to appear busy because the busier we are the more important we are. Think of those holiday letters everyone composes, including me. Do they say how blessed we are to have our children home, or even mention that they might be happy with their lives or partners or children? Instead, true family joy becomes a work like list of accomplishments. The letters include what we did and where we went, but not how we feel.
If it is not the competition to be busier than our neighbor, then perhaps it is the obsession of thinking about how much we have to do. For instance have you seen my to do list? I just have to squeeze in my leisure time. Our New Year’s resolution may be to spend more time with our children, but what if we use our leisure or family time at the park looking at texts or email on our phones? Is it any wonder we may not feel we have any time off? Finally, Keynes assumed that there were a finite number of things that people need, and so he figured in time, they would make enough to fill those needs. Unfortunately he didn’t bargain on a culture that continuously finds new things for us to need. I was the last person on the block to get a Cell phone, and felt like a pariah for not having one. The problem is we are so good at consuming, we keep consuming, precisely because we are good at it. What we need to do is learn how to be good at leisure, and then we can really love it, and immerse ourselves in it. Studies show that those with the most wealth actually have the least amount of leisure time. Why? Those who stay at the office longer, learn that the more they work they more they earn, and so it becomes a vicious circle. The article ended by suggesting that perhaps we should reexamine the idea that more wealth is the answer. But who has time to even consider it?
I began by saying that we do not have a judgment day in our faith because we do not envision some kind of royal Lord Jesus on a throne with a check off list of what gets us into heaven and judging whether we have been sufficiently good, like some Santa test of naughty or nice. We also don’t expect a flying Jesus in a second coming on a glorious chariot with the saved awarded wings to fly into the sky while the damned fall into a giant sinkhole that consumes them all. These judgment days, whether personal or global are singular events of potentially catastrophic results. Those who believe, tend to worry or obsess over the results, even though it is not about to happen today or even tomorrow. Yet, we who don’t believe are no different. We have our daily judgment day that makes us feel ever so unworthy. We obsessively judge ourselves, especially at this time of year with our failings, which is why we have New Year’s resolutions. So we are not standing at the pearly gate nor raising up our arms waiting for the Rapture, but we are still judging ourselves for being too fat, or parental or personal failings, or eating the wrong things, or not recycling or composting enough, or taking the holiday letter that brags about all our activities, and mailing it, yes, using real paper and stamps and envelopes, rather than sending it by electronic mail, and feeling bad about it.
I notice I often do this daily judging the older I get. I think now that I am approaching retirement, how much time do I have left? Will I get a chance to visit all the places I want to visit, or read all the books I want to? Then we compose bucket lists of what we must do before we die. That too can become a kind of consumer list to check off as accomplished without regard of whether or not we enjoyed the experience. That’s done, we say. The latest for me is that I am aware that I don’t seem to be getting as much done as I did a few years ago. I look at working days in my office and what I give the church, and recall that I was teaching classes, writing books, and going to countless meetings with enough energy to get it all done. Now I feel as though I can’t get anything done. Preparing for class seems to require more effort, and I just requested yet another extension for when my dictionary will be completed. Then I judge myself again. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get more done like I used to? Whether it is the style with which I live my life, or how much I am accomplishing, I bring out the judgments and condemn myself again for not being worthy enough.
The other problem I seem to be experiencing more as I age is that time seems to fly by. Is it New Year’s Day already? 2016? As Dr. Seuss once said, “How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”
Now no one would question that time is measured in exacting intervals – 60 seconds is 60 seconds. The perception is that if we are enjoying ourselves, time goes quickly, and if we are bored, then time seems to go slowly. Those sermons last forever, we might say, and that new Star Wars movie, went by in a flash. Of course it is all a matter of perception, or even attitude. We have adequate means for measuring time in days, months and years, and yet I find we start a church year, and then suddenly it is Christmas. Am I enjoying my job so much that the year flies by, or is it something else? Would time drag if there were a crisis like last year’s series of robberies? While it is true that a depressing experience makes time seem to move slowly, and a great time appears to evaporate quickly, there is also the degree of focus that determines our perception of time. We say a watched pot never boils, and I can personally testify that I have the slowest toaster in the world. When we are watching or focusing, it can seem to take forever. On days that I write sermons, an eight-hour work day, easily becomes 10. I know that my internal measures of time never match up with my clocks. But what about this feeling of time moving faster as we age?
It is apparently true that people over the age of 60 report that the year goes faster, so the holidays come sooner. They also report that days seem to drag. I can report from my own perception that days can drag, not because they are filled with sermon writing, but because I can’t focus on things as much as I did before. Plain and simple I can’t see as well. I am slower. I can’t remember as well. I know I can try to do exercises for memory improvement and get new glasses, but day-to-day I can’t do as many tasks at once. I could make this a judgment thing that I am not what I once was, or I can let go of that daily judgment, and take the long view that this is my life right now, and I can appreciate the focus on the things I can do, and what I need to do I will get done in due time. The person who is usually rushing me is me. Life must be more than about what I can accomplish or how much work I can get done. This helps me understand how a day can seem slow, but what about a quick year?
The fast appearance of another New Year has much to do with memory. As we get older, the more memory we have. For one thing, we don’t have as much present time left, as we get older. I don’t mean we are on the edge of dying and our days are fewer, as true as that may be, but rather we have a shorter span of present time because our past is so much greater. When you are young you have fewer total memories, and so it makes them more intense, and they are more recent, too, so more vivid in memory. As we age, our lives are filled with many significant things that happened a long time ago, and so we develop a long view of life and life’s meaning. We are further away from those critical events – life with parents, school, college, marriage, birth of children, jobs. We are also less likely to have as many intense experiences as we age. Life becomes simpler. This is not to say we don’t have intense experiences, as dealing with physical ailments and decline are certainly trying and traumatic, but for many of us, most dramatic life experiences largely occurred a long time ago. This should also be a time when memories deepen, and the clarity with which we can remember things gives us personal meaning within the wider flow of time. Can we balance these slow days and fast years?
I think liberals no matter what their ages, while scoffing at theological judgment days, tend to embrace daily judgment days about their own lives, at times preventing themselves from enjoying life because they are so filled with guilt at what they have not done for others. We deprive ourselves of an ice cream or a dinner out at a nice restaurant because the equivalent costs might have paid for a bed or medicine for a victim of malaria. Do gooders sometimes do too much good, and are continually judging themselves. All of us are looking for connections and a sense of purpose, but because liberals can never be satisfied with what they do, they are continuously searching to do more. Perhaps there is a frustration that we can’t change the world no matter how much we do, which is why we would be better off doing some small things, what we can to help others, and balance that with enjoying the day, time with loved ones, or even a pleasant dinner at a restaurant, no matter what the cost. Once in a while we should buy some fine perfume, as Cavafy suggests. We are sucked in by the ever-quickening pace of life because we constantly feel we must do more. Chances are we would all feel more connected if we would accept some of those slow days of aging, where we get done what we can get done and accept life with a balance of effort and adequate results. Every day should not be judgment day, but acceptance day where we enjoy and appreciate the moment – our hours together when we can heighten our awareness of the here and now, and not obsess about how good we are or how much we are getting done. Judgment day comes when we focus on the goals we have to reach, but neglect to savor the depth of living we are experiencing along the path of the journey. It is being filled with too much about the end of the journey or reaching Ithaca as the reading suggests, while neglecting the islands of pleasure and challenge on the way. We can learn to appreciate a slower pace, less frantic, less consuming and being more gentle with ourselves, mindful of a river that is not rushing forward like spring run off, but is a slow meandering crawl of gentle stillness.
The balance of those slow days may be found in the fast years that rush by season to season, but again it is not the judgment that you did not do enough, or go far enough. I need the long view of memory, and that is what makes it go fast now. The long view gives perspective, and goes beyond today’s frustrations and disappointments. The long view also helps us see that many of today’s worries are pointless, and we can either alleviate them or more likely ignore them. Finally that long view of life reminds me of amazing moments, gifts of love and knowledge, coupled with learning moments of pain and betrayal, that have all accumulated, all grist for the mill, now moving faster towards the end, but nevertheless all spilling into a common bowl of wisdom that is powerful in sum, that I can impart to others. Slow days and fast life. It is holding moments of memory as they go fleeting into the abyss of time, not to be judged good or bad, but to be remembered as parts of a whole life, meaningful and meaning making because I knew love, I knew wonder, and now I hope as days go slower, and years go faster, that I know peace.
Closing Words – from Gabriel Garcia Marquez
. . . he allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.
Christmas Eve Homily – December 24, 2015
Homily – The Freedom Tree
Christmas is a time for wishing. As children most of us had Christmas wish lists, these were the toys or games we wanted most and we tried to convey those wishes to anyone who would listen. There were letters to Santa, there were constant reminders to our parents of our fervent wishes, and if we saw Santa at a store, we made sure to tell him about the baseball glove or record player we were wishing for. I know I am dating myself here, as there was no Mario Super Smash Brothers. We barely had pinball machines. When we went to bed on Christmas Eve, we did not have visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads like the famous poem, but rather shiny new skates or skis, books or dolls that we dreamed would be sitting under the tree on Christmas morning sometimes wrapped in colorful paper, and other times adorned only with a large bow, especially if Santa was in a hurry. I suspect children still wish for certain gifts to appear under the tree.
We have other things we wish for at this time of year. Sometimes it is things we have no control of. Those who like the warm temperatures wish that it would stay that way, and those who like an old New England winter wish for cold temperatures and snow. Why are New Englanders never happy?. In our own families we may wish for a quiet holiday where there will be no fighting over a behavior or a point of view, or we wish that no one would feel inadequate for the present they gave, the way they look or what they don’t have. As a kid, I remember wishing for a body that was a lot skinnier or that I might someday hit a baseball like Ted Williams. I finally accepted that I would not be a hall of famer, and that my body worked just fine. It was better to be happy with what I had rather than wishing I were somebody else.
When we wish for peace this time of year we may remember what others have endured. The Unitarian minister Edmund Hamilton Sears reflected in “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” on his sorrow over the Mexican War, which had just ended in1849. He wanted to hear the beautiful loving strains of angel songs rather than the violent sounds of war.
Strife is central to Jesus’ story too. It is the story of a poor family who have been made refugees by political and religious turmoil, living under a king who seeks more and more tax money. He uproots the common people for his own gain, and ruthlessly pursues those who may threaten his rule in any way In the story we see Joseph and Mary running away to survive. As they looked for a warm, dry place to prepare for a birth, fearful people turned them away. Days after the birth, the new family had to get back on the road to escape violence and persecution. This story might be one from modern day Syria or Iraq.
During the last three weeks First Parish has been the drop off spot for material items for Syrian refugees in camps in Turkey. Twice my office has been filled to the brim with food and clothes, toys like soccer balls and stuffed monkeys and basic needs like diapers. I try to picture thousands of people massed together, and wished we had a more welcoming spirit here in America. Too many politicians and fellow citizens have been saying there is no room at the inn. Among the visitors to my office was a woman who dropped off some clothes. She asked me if I knew if anything was getting through to the people of Mosul. There was a sad look in her eyes. I remembered that Mosul had fallen to the forces of ISIS last year, just as she was saying, “my family is there.” Yet it is just such a world that Jesus was born into, and families in these tents, and under siege and afraid will also know a moment of joy, a few minutes of hope, with a cry of new life, when their babies are born, with the wish, the longing and the prayer that tomorrow will bring peace, and everyone can go home..
It was not so long ago that a man named Charles Follen came to America as a refugee. We mostly know Follen as the person who introduced the Christmas tree to New England, but his story parallels that of Jesus and our Syrian refugees today. He was born in Germany when Napoleon and his French armies controlled the countryside, and soon thereafter his family had to flee when foreign armies swept through their town, Follen wanted to see a united Germany, but even after French domination came to an end, aristocratic control prevailed. He became part of a revolutionary movement. He was vocal, and his group wanted the overthrow of the government, and soon the police were investigating him. Then he had to flee from prison or worse. It reminds us of the urgency with which we must help save those who are trapped, having fallen into life-threatening situations. Follen changed his place of residence frequently, and burned his correspondence. Soon he fled to Geneva, and eventually to America.
The story goes that he wanted to spread the influence of German culture. He remembered the Christmas trees of his childhood that glowed so brightly, and he wanted to thrill his young son Charlie with this wonderful symbol of light and green growth. But it was more than that. Follen had become part of an anti-slavery society here in Massachusetts, and his group held Christmas fairs and sold gifts to raise funds to further their cause. They sang carols, and offered cards for sale and an evergreen shrub, forever to be known as a Christmas Tree.. The group also focused on children and their rights, and compared the children to the slaves. It was a time when children who misbehaved were beaten, just as slaves were beaten. Don’t all people, Follen asked, deserve basic rights to not be hurt, and to be free to develop their talents?
Follen cut a tree down, set it in a tub, and placed it in his parlor. The tree was decorated with real toys, dolls and puppets, and paper cornucopias with candied fruit for the children to eat. There were popcorn and cranberry garlands, and even whole hanging fruit, as well, not ornaments but things you could eat and play with. They were things to make you happy. There were even real candles that burned creating a magic glow filling the entire room. Harriet Martineau reported on this amazing sight and how it hushed all the voices to a silent awe. A doll’s petticoat caught on fire, but it was quickly extinguished. Follen wanted all children to have rights and all slaves to be free. Gifts were to be given so everyone would be able to enjoy life, and feel the care of others. And so this Christmas symbol was his own very green freedom tree. Today there is a UU church in Lexington named for Charles Follen who did more than give us green growing trees in a time when the earth is barren . He had a growing vision of freedom that would not die.
Charles had a wish for freedom for children and for slaves. What if you had one wish? What would it be? Would you wish for peace, and an end to suffering? Would you wish that there would be no more families who are driven from their homes? Would you wish that no one would be hurt in his or her family or in their school? Would you wish for love, or healing? If you were in a camp would you wish for a ball to play with, or a doctor to make you feel better, or an end to people fighting? Maybe a wish is just that, an empty wish. But maybe it is more. It is an idea you can think about. And you can make a commitment. You can wish to change things sometimes, and you can make it happen. Wishes can come true, and they don’t need stars or wise men, or even holy births. A wish can be a dangerous thing. It can take courage to act on a wish. Sometimes a wish is just wishful thinking. It’s too big. But sometimes you, yes you are big enough to act, or to have the same wish as others and act together, to be thoughtful about what you can do, to wish for strength and courage, and then you have it. It is born in you. What would your wish be, on this night when wishes are waiting to be fulfilled?
O Spirit of this season of darkness, from bleak days, we have gathered in community to make a dreary season shine with lights, we erect greens in our homes for new life, we hang bright ornaments to represent joy, we place gifts under the tree to show our care for each other. We are grateful for the return of the Christmas spirit. May it remind us that even though it seems that we are plodding along, that we are on a wondrous journey if we would only listen to the angelic music that surrounds, and follow the stars leading to new births. May it remind us that sometimes we try too hard with heavy lifting when what saves us is a simple word or smile, a gentle caress of the soul. May it remind us that we can be too orderly in all our arrangements when sometimes we need the messy chaos of the backyard stable. May it remind us that the quiet darkness of the night is imploring us to listen, and not talk our way out of hearing and seeing what is truly lovely. May it remind us to keep lighting candles, because even if the immediate moment seems bleak, the journey continues, and the soul can break open in love again, further down the road. Letting the light shine once more. Amen
“Second to the Right, and Straight on Till Morning” by Lauren Strauss, December 20, 2015 – homily at Holiday Pageant
The way to the Neverland, says J.M. Barrie in his 1911 book Peter and Wendy, is “Second to the Right and Straight on ‘Til Morning.” Peter, telling Wendy these directions, never says the word star. Stars in the Neverland—sentient beings inhabiting neither the Mainland nor the Neverland, but rather the firmament between them—watch over the creatures of both worlds. Barrie describes their existence as strange and sad, because “they may not participate actively in anything” but “must look on forever.” A quintessential child’s world, the Neverland is full of wonder and marvel, but never deepens or grows. Peter, Wendy, John, and Michael may indeed follow stars to the Neverland, but, as Barrie notes, it is more likely that Peter made those directions up to impress Wendy, and that they only found the island because it was ‘out looking for them.’ In 1953, Walt Disney added the word “star” to the phrase in his cartoon adaptation of Peter Pan. Because so many of us are used to the idea of following stars, this addition seems natural.
I was nine years old when Star Wars came out in May, 1977. By my tenth birthday in December, I’m sure I had seen the movie at least five times, read the novelization, and dramatically recreated it with the help of The Story of Star Wars record album, which my neighbor Stacy owned, at least a million times. My brother got to play Luke Skywalker uncontested, but there was always a fight over who got to be Princess Leia. She was my hero. She was strong, and so beautiful, in her flowing white gown and unlikely hair buns. She could handle a blaster as well as any man, and she spoke fearlessly and with authority to everyone she met. When I think “Princess,” I’m not thinking about any Disney princess. I’m seeing Leia.
Now, I swear by all I hold dear that this will be a spoiler-free zone. But as the clock chimed midnight on my birthday morning this past Friday, I was sitting in a movie theater watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And there she was, a general now, with a telltale sadness around her eyes that no one who has lived more than a couple of decades can escape. She’s a mom now, this former princess, and like all moms, she has made mistakes—big ones. She has lost much, and struggled, but she has not given up hope. Her edges, once so hard, have softened: she no longer has to pretend to be tough in every situation. At the same time, she is tough. Tough enough that when things go very badly wrong, she takes a deep breath and keeps going. Tough enough to comfort another, even when she herself is grieving.
Leia grew up. Like Peter Pan, Disney princesses almost never grow up. They are suspended forever at a young but indefinite age that is old enough for marriage but young enough to fit into those absurd dresses and still eat cake. We don’t get to see their marriages go sour, or their children having trouble in school or getting teased or… well, having to learn to control the Force. You know that’s gotta be hard no matter how good a mom you are. But through it all, Leia and Luke and Han are guided, as many of us hope to be, by metaphorical stars like freedom and kindness and love. Those things keep them on the Light Side, wielding the blue light saber, standing up for what’s right, against all the people who seem to think that the Dark Side is the place to be. “Come to the Dark Side,” the saying goes, “we’ve got cookies.” The Dark Side is all about cookies, you know. It’s not about sharing cookies. It’s about having cookies. Would you rather follow a star, or spend your time hoarding cookies? Cookies have an immediate pay-off. They taste great; they’re sweet; they’re covered in frosting, or filled with chocolate chips. But if your whole life is about collecting all the cookies, you’ll lose sight of that star, and stay stuck in one place, in Neverland, where you can maintain the illusion that you can actually eat all the cookies.
Stars are great tools for navigation. They follow a mostly-orderly path through the skies, and organize themselves in recognizable patterns we can easily see. The Wise Men weren’t the first to follow a star to something wonderful, nor the last. Following a star is not meant to be easy, though. There are obstacles on the ground to throw you off course, and people who’ll tempt you with shiny things… and cookies. The path to the Light Side is the harder course. If the Neverland is out looking for you, you might never find the deeper, more satisfying things in life. You’ll never grow up.
Choose the light; like General Leia Organa, choose the harder but more satisfying course. Grow up.
May the Force be with you.